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Mini-desert on-campus hides underground habitat for threatened burrowing owls

Just south of the water tower at ASU's Polytechnic campus lies an underground habitat in which 12 burrowing owls reside, raising fledgling owls, foraging for food and making this habitat their own

burrowing-owls-greg-clark

Mini-desert on-campus hides underground habitat for threatened burrowing owls

Just south of the water tower at ASU's Polytechnic campus lies an underground habitat in which 12 burrowing owls reside, raising fledgling owls, foraging for food and making this habitat their own

A small dirt lot sits between ASU's Polytechnic campus, a field of solar panels and a suburban neighborhood. Last summer's heavy rains spurred the growth of bushes and weeds, and aside from a few newly-planted cacti, the area is otherwise flat and treeless.

The terrain is interrupted, though, by six burrows which, from the surface, look like large mounds of earth. But underground is a system of tunnels and chambers for 12 burrowing owls to explore.

Through collaboration between ASU and Wild at Heart rescue, housing the burrows on-campus allows for students and staff to engage in hands-on research after a year of mostly online education.

Heather Bateman, an ornithology professor at the Polytechnic campus, can easily access the owl habitat only a short walk across the street from her office. She observes the owls from a distance with a pair of binoculars to not disturb them or scare them off. 

Bateman has been involved with the owl conservation project since the beginning.

"It started with faculty and students working together," she said.

Adam Stein, a biology professor and one of Bateman's colleagues, and two undergraduate students looked into areas on the Polytechnic campus suitable for burrowing owls over a year ago. Stein, along with Bateman, proposed possible sites to ASU and reached out to Wild at Heart to see whether or not building burrows on campus was a possibility.

In order to properly house the owls, the area needed to be fairly open, with little-to-no trees nearby to avoid potential predators. The site also needed to be in close proximity to areas where the owls could forage for food. 

The potential habitats also had to fit into ASU's plan for the Polytechnic campus, so they could not be in any area slated for construction in the near future.

Greg Clark, Wild at Heart's burrowing owl habitat coordinator, surveyed the proposed sites. Upon his approval, the organization and ASU facilities began work on the artificial burrows in May.

"We did it over a weekend," Bateman said. "(Facilities) used the backhoe to dig sort of a U-shaped hole about four feet underground, and Wild At Heart had all of the items in terms of how to build that nest chamber."

The owls were introduced with what Bateman called a "soft release." Wild at Heart brought the owls to the site and placed them in the burrows. They then constructed tents over the burrows so the owls could be acclimated to the site. Finally, they removed the tents and it was up to the owls to decide whether or not they would stay.

So far, all of the owls introduced remain in the artificial burrows.

According to Bateman, this is the first semester that classes have really engaged with the owls.

"It was really hard to do biology on Zoom," she said. "We've tried to use the owl conservation project in all kinds of classes, from freshman all the way up to graduate students."

Students can engage with the owls across many different scientific fields; some classes monitor the owls' growth and development, some look into the structures of the burrows and how they can be improved and some plant cacti and other native plants around the habitat to attract native insect and reptile species owls can feast on.

Following the building of the Polytechnic habitats, the ASU West campus also became home to some owls of its own in October.

Chad Johnson, a behavioral ecologist on the West campus, is studying the owls' behavior to determine ways to predict whether or not an owl decides to stay in an artificial burrow. 

This information has the potential to aid Wild at Heart and other organizations in their conservation efforts by identifying ways burrows can be perfected so more owls decide to stay.

The status of owl conservation

Across North America, the population of all types of burrowing owls has been declining since the mid-20th century. They are considered an endangered species in Minnesota, but not yet in Arizona. Instead, the species is considered a species of concern in the state as human activity diminishes their habitats.

Bateman pointed to the urbanization and commercialization of the Sonoran Desert landscape as two major threats.

Burrowing owls live true to their name as the only species of owl to build their nests underground. They tend to thrive in wide, open agricultural areas where there are few trees that could hide predators and a wide array of insects and rodents to feast on. 

In Phoenix, one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. in terms of population, agricultural areas are shrinking rapidly to make room for an ever-growing housing market. Developers are building on top of the natural habitats of burrowing owls, resulting in a shortage of safe areas for them to nest.

That's where Wild at Heart comes in. 

"It's just a question of time before the edge of the housing market reaches their habitat," Clark said. "The idea is for the developers to cooperate with Wild at Heart to make it possible for them to be removed before the site-building occurs."

Wild at Heart takes in owls who are displaced from development sites and houses them in an aviary until they can find areas to serve as artificial habitats. However, this is no easy feat.

As urban areas continue to grow, the open agricultural areas Wild at Heart can use to build new habitats diminish. Clark said the organization has now begun to focus on trying to find urban areas still suitable for the owls.

"I have high hopes that ASU will work on research that helps these urban sites where we have not had much luck in the past," he said.

Clark said figuring out more about the potential of these urban sites could help conserve the burrowing owl population not only in Arizona but in other western states as well.

Burrowing owls have already adapted their habitats around human activity in the past. They used to occupy grassland areas, using the abandoned holes of prairie dogs as burrows since they are unable to dig holes themselves.

As human expansion, development and agriculture in Arizona began to increase, the prairie dog population began to diminish due to sport hunting and habitat loss. Thus, burrowing owls had to switch to using holes dug by foxes and other small animals near agricultural sites.

Irrigation of these agricultural sites allows food sources like insects and rodents to thrive, creating ideal places for owls to live.

"Around the turn of the last century, farmers would go out on their porch at the end of the day, after dinner, and they would watch burrowing owls like we watch TV or listen to the radio," Clark said. "That’s how many burrowing owls there were."

Now development and drought make it difficult for agricultural sites to be maintained, and conservation efforts have shifted toward figuring out ways to make sites in urban areas work.

"If the burrowing owl population goes down to extremely low numbers, it affects developers, farmers, basically everybody," Clark said.

Burrowing owls aren't the only species being displaced by urban development. According to Edwin Juarez, Arizona bird conservation initiative coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, loss of habitat is a major threat to all bird species.

Burrowing owls are on the list of species of greatest conservation need, Juarez said, which prioritizes around 150 bird species in need of the most attention out of the nearly 500 total species dwelling in Arizona.

The future of burrowing owls at ASU

While students and staff are able to interact with and learn from the burrowing owls on campus, Bateman hopes to expand the project to include more public engagement.

She discussed possibly putting footpaths around the habitat so people could explore it from a safe distance. Interactive signs could communicate some of the natural history of the birds and their habitats.

"Maybe like a big scope for people to use if they don't have binoculars or some type of live cam," she added.

The burrows are already starting to gain some public attention. Bateman and her team reached out to some local Audubon chapters, and now, around once a month, birders and ornithologists come out to observe the owls in their new habitat.

"They're pretty interesting creatures," Bateman said. "It's nice to have something that is a little bit of nature right on campus, walking distance from our classrooms."


Reach the reporter at kaduffy6@asu.edu or follow @kateduffyy on Twitter. 

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