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  Vanishing Owls

by Dave Yanko
Grant Fahlman beside the sign presented to him by Prince Philip in 1987.
Grant Fahlman beside the sign presented to him by Prince Philip in 1987.

When Prince Philip visited Grant and Sheila Fahlman's farm in 1987 to draw attention to the plight of the burrowing owl, the land was home to 11 breeding pairs of the rare bird. In 1998, the strip of pasture-land the Fahlmans carefully protected for more than a decade attracted just one male and two females. In spring 1999, one lonely female made a brief appearance and vanished.

"I'm not feeling very good about this," says Grant Fahlman, whose farm is located 20 kms east of Regina. "You get used to them being around. People came around to see them and talk about them. That won't happen this year."

Unfortunately, the Fahlmans' experience is not at all unusual.

Burrowing owls, which in fact adopt burrows vacated by ground squirrels and badgers, are declining in number at an average annual rate of 16 per cent. Experts estimate there are now fewer than 1,000 nesting pairs in Canada, the majority in southern Saskatchewan.

The tiny owl, not much bigger than a robin, is a victim of modern agriculture. Most of its natural grassland habitat is now grain fields.

Farmers who settled the prairies didn't know the cumulative effects of their actions would eventually threaten grassland species like the burrowing owl. In fact, it wasn't until the mid 1980s that Fahlman learned of the problem.

That's when he phoned Regina's natural history museum to see whether the facility could make use of an albino sparrow he'd discovered on his farm. As it turned out, the museum had several in stock. The conversation, as Fahlman recalled in an interview at his farm, turned to other subjects.

"The person I talked to knew of our location. He asked if I was a farmer who had a pasture and if I had burrowing owls on that pasture. I said I was, and I had.

"At that time, it was similar economic times to now. There were highs and lows in the market, and lows at that time were livestock and highs were grain prices. I commented that perhaps I'd be better off, rather than fighting the weather over winter to feed my small herd of cattle, to let the cattle go and break up some of that pasture -- turn it into crop land.

"That's when the alarm bells went off."

A museum staffer and a Regina naturalist soon appeared on Fahlman's doorstep.

"They said 'You know the burrowing owls are a threatened species?' And I said I sure as hell did not know that. . . We got talking more and more, and they persuaded me to retain the habitat as is."

The male forages, mostly at night, while the female incumbates the eggs.
- copyright Brian K. Jeffery
The male forages, mostly at night, while the female incumbates the eggs.

Fahlman became one of the first Saskatchewan farmers to join Operation Burrowing Owl, today a group of almost 500 landowners trying to save the small owl their forefathers unwittingly imperiled.

Operation Burrowing Owl (OBO) is coordinated by Nature Saskatchewan, a private conservation group established in 1949. In joining OBO the farmers, ranchers and other landowners voluntarily agree to conserve burrowing owl habitat surrounding active and historic nest sites. Members now conserve owl habitat on more than 150,000 acres of private and public land in the province. They receive a newsletter keeping them posted on numbers and trends, and they can bow out whenever they wish, no questions asked.

For Fahlman and his wife Sheila, who works for Nature Saskatchewan, OBO has become something of a passion. A few years ago, they planted a 2.5-metre strip (8 feet) of native grasses and wild flowers beside the pasture to provide habitat for the mice, voles and insects the owls like eat. They've entertained visitors from near and far, they've devoted much of their time educating people on the owls and they've gained a greater appreciation for all wild things.

The question, then, is this: What's wrong when highly-committed OBO members like the Fahlmans can't preserve any of what was once one of the largest burrowing owl communities in Saskatchewan?

"We've asked ourselves the same question," says Karyn Scalise, the burrowing owl expert at Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management.

"It's really disheartening to see this. And it really disappoints the landowners."

Scalise says OBO and other conservation organizations in Canada and the U.S. are just beginning to understand the factors at play in the steep decline of the owl, which was 'uplisted' to endangered from threatened in 1995. What's known of these 'limiting factors' suggests the bird is subject to relentless pressure through every stage of its life.

Owls that nest in Saskatchewan and Alberta typically arrive from their southern wintering grounds around the third week of April. The females select mates and the breeding pairs produce an average of nine eggs that hatch 26 to 30 days later.

Chicks mature rapidly. They take their first steps above ground after a couple of weeks, their first awkward flights at three or four weeks, and they're usually flying well after five. Four or five weeks after they fledge they can become fairly independent of their parents and quite vulnerable to a host of dangers.

Skunks, fox, coyotes, badgers and hawks find the young burrowing owls delectable and easy prey. What remains of the vast tracts of pasture land favored by the owls are small and fragmented plots where more burrowing owls are forced to live among more predators.

Use of a grasshopper-control chemical called carbofuran was greatly limited when one test showed a 50-per-cent reduction in fledglings, and a similar reduction in breeding pairs raising at least one chick, among nests located 50 metres (yards) from crops sprayed with the pesticide.

Road kill of the young birds is significant because insects the fledglings feed upon tend to congregate on the warm gravel -- OBO distributes road signs requesting drivers to slow down in nesting areas. And an increase in tree planting on the prairies is posing a new risk to the owls by creating a habitat for the red-tailed hawk, a bird not indigenous to the open prairie.

Any number of perils await the chicks.
- copyright Brian K. Jeffery
Any number of perils await the chicks.

"Most of the mortality occurs within the first 10 days of fledging," says Danielle Todd, a University of Regina graduate student who's been studying the survival and mortality of juvenile owls for three years.

"The main factor I found was avian predation by hawks and other large owls," says Todd.

Todd and others are studying owls that nest within a 12,200-sq-kms block of land that's part of the Regina Plain. What happens to the birds after they leave Saskatchewan in late September, however, remains largely unknown.

A 1997 attempt to find their migration route by tracking 13 birds outfitted with transmitters had to be called off in North Dakota when biologists in the pursuing aircraft encountered persistent severe weather. Signals from two of the birds were picked up in Texas and northern Mexico in 1998, and only three of the outfitted owls returned to the Moose Jaw district in the spring

Of the more than 3,000 burrowing owls banded in Canada by Todd, her associates and their predecessors, only 10 have been identified outside of Canada. So researchers still don't know where Canada's owls winter. (Update: In December 2000, two burrowing owls from Saskatchewan were found wintering in Texas, raising to three the number of Saskatchewan owls that have been discovered there.)

Further blurring the picture is the fact many burrowing owls that each spring arrive in Todd's study area are not sporting bands.

"Since we've tried to band all birds in this (study) area, or as many as we can, it means those birds are coming from outside, and our banded birds are either dying or going somewhere else."

Scalise says burrowing owl numbers are declining throughout their range, which includes South America and the U.S., as well as the southern prairies of Canada. Two anomalies are California and Florida, where numbers are actually increasing because of unrelated habitat changes that favor the owls.

Saskatchewan has been involved in a very limited and unsuccessful reintroduction program for the past three years, but only as a means of experimenting with techniques.

"We would not consider reintroducing burrowing owls on any large scale until the ultimate factors of their decline are identified and addressed," says Scalise. "Otherwise, we're just kind of sending the birds into a black hole."

Researchers today know much more about the burrowing owl than they did five years ago, she says, and this information is crucial in determining where to direct future efforts.

"But the research is really, really expensive to carry out and it can take a long time to gather it."

The Wildlife Preservation Trust of Canada is making a key contribution to the burrowing owl cause by paying for much of the research undertaken by Todd, she said. Another long-time supporter is The World Wildlife Fund -- Endangered Species Recovery Fund.

- courtesy Nature Saskatchewan

Industry has made a hefty contribution, particularly Trans-Canada Pipelines, Enbridge Pipelines, Foothills Pipeline and Trans-Gas, which in 1996 donated $125,000 over three years to help pay for owl research.

Clearly, however, more research funding is needed if OBO members like the Fahlmans can ever again hope to see their vacant burrows well populated with owls.

"They were here when my dad was a kid and they were here when I was a kid," says Fahlman.

"Gophers were here. Badgers were here. Owls were here. They were here forever."

For more information on burrowing owls, or to make a small (or perhaps even a large) contribution to Operation Burrowing Owl, contact Nature Saskatchewan at #206 - 1860 Lorne St., Regina, SK, S4P 2L7. Nature Saskatchewan's email address is:

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