June 14th, 2024

Burrowing owls get population boost at CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area

By Peggy Revell on June 23, 2018.

Burrowing owls are tiny, weighing approximately 160 grams. They are an endangered species and there may be as few as 400 female/male pairs remaining in Canada, according to Environment Climate Change Canada.--SUBMITTED PHOTO Warrant Officer Derrick Steeves


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A project to bolster the burrowing owl population on the prairies has expanded, with the release of eight owls this spring into the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area.

“Burrowing owls are an endangered species in Canada,” said Graham Dixon-MacCallum, a conservation research associate with the Calgary Zoo. “Environment Canada has estimated that the population is declining by as much as eight and 15 per cent every year.”

“The smoking gun seems to be burrowing owls being hatched in the wild and leaving on migration, but not enough coming back each year,” said Troy Wellicome, a senior species at risk biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). “We think that’s why the population is dwindling over time.”

ECCC estimates there may be as few as 400 female/male burrowing owl pairs in the country.

It’s why a head-starting project was launched in 2016, with young owlets captured in late June/early July, kept over the winter at the Calgary Zoo, and released in the spring.

CFB Suffield’s NWA provides “excellent habitat” for the owls, said Dixon-McCallum.

The NWA reaches 458 square kilometres, and is managed by the Department of National Defence. It remains one of the only undisturbed native prairie lands in Canada. No military training occurs there, and the area is not open to the public.

“For us as the Canadian Armed Forces, managing the NWA is quite unique,” said Danny Laganire, base environmental officer. “It’s amazing to see we can collaborate and provide logistical support to make it safe for the project, and be able to provide engineers, support, to dig these burrows.”

“As their name suggests, burrowing owls nest in burrows, but they don’t dig those burrows themselves,” said Dixon-MacCallum, explaining that the owls depend on badgers and even gophers for the burrows.

So while a lot of people don’t necessarily like these animals, leaving them alone is good for the owls, he said.

Locals can also help by alerting them to where burrowing owls are, he said, so they know of places that would be good to release young owls.

“We’re trying to get as many stakeholders involved as possible,” said Dixon-MacCallum, adding local ranchers have been involved since its start, as well as Alberta Environment and Parks. “Getting to work with local ranchers has been a really positive experience. I just love working with them and seeing how passionate they are about protecting the wildlife on their land.”

Wellicome said the short-term plan is to see if the head starting program will help with population recovery, including if done on a wider scale across Alberta and even Saskatchewan.

“If we prove that it can help, then the longer term would be to work with people in the U.S. and Mexico to try to make it so the owls can come back in good numbers on their own.”

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