Beloved owls struggle to survive as they’re squeezed out of burrows

Burrowing owls get to watch as their homes are destroyed.

The much-loved species, with an admirable family life and a devoted following of volunteers, can’t be killed under state law. But landowners can scare them off and collapse their burrows, the distinctive holes the owls dig on the dry, open land coveted by developers.

Among the recent projects receiving state permits to do so: a strip mall in North Lauderdale, a plan to improve runways and taxiways at Palm Beach International Airport, a housing development at the former Hillcrest golf course in Hollywood and a construction project at Boca Raton Airport.

The state wildlife commission is now working on increasing their protection, since their numbers have continued to decline. Despite the prohibition on killing them, many owls don’t survive the loss of their homes, which leaves them vulnerable to threats such as hawks, cats and cars.

“When their burrows are plugged, they simply stay in the area,” said Kelly Heffernan, a biologist who founded the South Florida Audubon Society’s Project Perch, which builds artificial burrows for owls. “When they’re exposed like that, they can suffer high rates of predation and starvation. They don’t have an easy time of it.”

The largest number of permits to destroy burrows have been issued in Cape Coral, Marco Island and Broward County. With more urban areas that have sandy, well-drained soil, Broward has been particularly attractive to the owls. And existing burrows at Broward’s four airports produce a steady supply of young owls that dig burrows in neighboring areas.

Since 2010, the state wildlife commission has issued 146 permits to destroy burrows in Broward County, 27 in Miami-Dade County and 30 in Palm Beach County. Only burrows without young or eggs may be destroyed. Not every project collapses every burrow permitted, and some developers mitigate the destruction by constructing artificial burrows nearby.

With their high level of daytime activity (at least for owls), they have long been among the most popular South Florida animals.

Volunteers with Project Perch have built 250 artificial burrows in Broward County, which have proven popular with owls whose natural burrows were destroyed or located in treacherous spots, such as near roads or runways. At FAU, where the species has given its name to the school’s sports teams, up to 20 owls live in grassy protected areas. Walking through the campus, a visitor may seen an owl pop out of its burrow and rise to its full nine-inch height to stare down the intruder.

Male and female owls form relationships that last longer than many human marriages. After the female lays eggs, she keeps them warm while the male brings her food, typically insects, frogs, lizards and mice. After the eggs hatch, the male stands guard some distance from the burrow and continues to do the hunting, bringing food for the female and the young owls.

“With their young, they’re extremely loving,” said Susan Davis, a Wellington wildlife photographer who is setting up a protection program for them in Palm Beach County under Project Perch. “There’s a lot of nuzzling, with the mother rubbing her beak over the owlet’s head. They’re always touching, usually the owlet holding onto the mother’s leg with its foot. I don’t think animals are any different from humans. They have feelings and emotions, and I see that in the owls.”

At Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Oakland Park, a rescued owl was just put into one of 10 artificial burrows built by parishioners on natural land next to the church. One parishioner is bringing the owl dead mice until it becomes acclimated and the cage over the burrow can be removed. Asked why parishioners would make such an effort, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Bob Tywoniak, invoked the long-established church teaching on being stewards of the earth.

“Pope Francis wrote the encyclical To Give Praise, which is all about the earth and global warming,” he said. “But he’s really writing what has been church teaching forever. God did not ask us to blow up the world. He asked us to take care of it.”

Craig Faulhaber, the commission’s avian conservation coordinator, said the new rules won’t end the destruction of owl burrows. But he said they are likely to require more effort to avoid that step and require landowners to mitigate the damage by constructing artificial burrows nearby or funding owl conservation programs.

The wildlife commission does not know how many owls remain. Last January the commission changed the owl’s conservation status from species of special concern to threatened, a status that comes with a higher level of protection.

The wildlife commission, which is run by a seven-member board appointed by the governor, is expected to receive a draft of the new owl protection proposal in December.

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