Training to Become Wild

With the tireless work of the Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) Burrowing Owl Recovery Team and Safari Park Bird Department at the Bird Breeding Complex (BBC), conservation breeding of burrowing owls (BUOW) has been successful.

In 2018, we captured a pair of burrowing owls that were using habitat that was in danger of development in Otay Mesa, CA. These birds became prime candidates for a project involving conservation breeding of burrowing owls that could later be released into the wild.

The BBC keepers worked to prepare a breeding enclosure for these owls, which involved installing artificial burrows, planting native shrubs familiar to BUOW, and setting up monitoring systems.

Against all the odds, this pair successfully fledged 3 healthy chicks within months of coming into captivity (Conservation in Action: Helping the Western Burrowing Owl).

Fast forward to 2019 when the ICR and BBC teams decided 2 of these juveniles would be released with nine translocated wild owls (4 breeding pairs and 1 single adult female) to a site in Jamul, California. This site is part of an ongoing effort to establish a new BUOW breeding node in San Diego County.

In order for these juveniles to successfully adapt to conditions in the wild, they were trained in various ways.

We built a special flight enclosure that would house our BBC birds and the single translocated adult female for 30 days. In theory, this female could “train” them to hunt and avoid predators before being fully released. The length of the enclosure was extended to provide more space for the juveniles to develop their flight muscles before release. We encouraged hunting by installing a large feeding trough filled with substrate and crickets.

While in the acclimation enclosure, we observed the juveniles’ reactions to audio recordings of BUOW alarm calls paired with barn owl decoys flown overhead to train them for predator avoidance. At last, the owls Blue X and Blue A/91 were ready to be released. 

Once released, the efforts didn’t stop there. The burrowing owl team monitored and fed at this site 3 days per week to support all of the individuals released.

After a lot of reshuffling, Blue X settled down with a wild male, laying 9 eggs. Soon after our camera traps recorded something interesting. The female that “trained” the BBC birds had taken over Blue X’s nesting burrow with a different male and the eggs disappeared. Blue X and her partner moved to another nearby burrow, laying 9 new eggs soon afterwards!

Ultimately, our team was able to band 6 healthy offspring, a very successful renest attempt from a pair of first-time parents. And there was another surprise… (see Breeding Season is a Hoot!).

Conservation breeding of burrowing owls has been very enlightening thus far. This collaboration within San Diego Zoo Global is important for local species such as the burrowing owl. We hope to continue working to learn more about captive breeding and release to advance our knowledge in creating sustainable populations with this species.

You can learn more about the Burrowing Owl Recovery Program here. If you would like to help us with our research, you can be a citizen scientist and catalog camera trap images of a family of burrowing owls by visiting our Wildwatch Burrowing Owl Project.

In the video below, watch Blue X hunting for crickets inside of feeding enclosure.