Burrowing owl populations have declined over the last few years, mostly due to habitat loss. Found in North and South America, it is listed as Endangered within Canada.
Lori Johnson, coordinator at the Saskatchewan Burrowing Owl Interpretive Center and Alex Froese, director and founder at the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program, have joined forces to save the burrowing owl, and potentially remove them off the list of endangered species.
Froese began her master’s study back in 2010, studying burrowing owls for three seasons in southwestern Manitoba, where she then established the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program in 2013. Today, alongside education and promotion, Froese says that a lot of their work is out within the burrowing owl’s habitat.
“A lot of our program is field-based. We work with landowners to improve habitats.” Froese continues. “This could be discussing land use, like what they’re doing to keep land intact and suitable for burrowing owls, as well as installing artificial nest burrows.”
Burrowing owls are the only North American species of owl to nest underground. This means that they rely on other animals including badgers, foxes, and coyotes to dig… and eventually abandon… suitable burrows. Hence the artificial nest burrows.
Johnson and Froese have spent many years working together to reintroduce owls back into the wild, transferring owls back and forth across the border to promote genetic diversity. Both the Saskatchewan Burrowing Owl Interpretive Center and the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program have worked hard to educate their communities about local burrowing owl populations, biodiversity, and grassland conservation, especially school-aged children.
“They’re going to be the ones that are going to have to pick up this torch and continue helping our burrowing owls,” Johnson states. “Because, unfortunately, these guys are going to need management if they’re going to survive and prosper in the wild.”
This year, Froese and her team will be reintroducing ten owls to the wild. She explains the process:
“Five pairs, so 10 owls, will be allowed to migrate, as they are a migratory species. They will migrate with some of their young, and we will hold over some of the young for the next year’s breeding season. The number of owls released always depends on how many eggs hatch, and how many young survive.”
One looming question that has baffled owl enthusiasts for years is… where do they go?
“Over the ten years that I’ve been working with the program, we’ve released over 300 owls, but we’ve only ever seen one return to the area that it was hatched at,” Froese confesses.
At The 2023 Burrowing Owl Symposium in California this past February, Froese and Johnson learned about transmitters that some wildlife professionals used to track migration patterns. Some burrowing owls were traveling as far south as Mexico, which caused them to wonder whether or not the owls they’d released were returning anywhere near their hatching sites.
Going forward, the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program hopes to secure funding for transmitters, priced at $5,000.00 apiece.
The Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program runs solely on donations, which dropped significantly over the last three years.
“We rely heavily on private donations and government funding for our program,” says Froese. “Last year, it almost looked like our program might not be able to continue, but we’ve been lucky, and had some really great private organizations show up for us, and some more partnerships come along that have provided the funding needed to keep going.”
Those wishing to support the cause financially can donate online, or even adopt an owl family. Adoption funds will feed the breeding pair and their young for one month, increasing their chances of a strong, healthy start.
Reporting owl sightings, volunteering to install artificial nest burrows, and booking presentations are other ways to help the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program.
“I hope people learn a little bit about the burrowing owl,” Froese continues. “And I hope that people take a moment and look up both of our projects, and see how they could participate, too!”
“Burrowing owl populations don’t recognize borders,” Johnson jokes. “So helping one program like the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program, or the Saskatchewan Burrowing Owl Interpretive Center, helps burrowing owls all over Canada. We need to work hand-in-hand in order to keep things progressing towards having a healthy, self-sustaining population of burrowing owls within Canada. “