by SC Reporter Reese Holiday
Masqueraded by an orderly system of talon-made tunnels, the Florida burrowing owls are like no other.
In a Jan. 21 Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society lecture, speaker Cheryl Black said these can-sized birds often find protection underground, but still face threats that diminish their population.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia floridana) is classified as State Threatened. Black, who is a project coordinator for the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, said threatened species can often become endangered, especially when they remain vulnerable on the ground.
“They spend most of their time on the ground,” Black said. “They’re not very many other owls that you can find that are on the ground most of the time. They hunt on the ground, they sit on the ground, and that makes them very vulnerable to predators.”
Other than their natural predators, burrowing owls also face habitat loss, heavy flooding and attacks from domestic animals, according to the FWC. Despite this and their short six to eight-year life span, burrowing owls still take their distinctive habits to find new homes.
“These little guys are very unique birds,” Black said. “They’re the only raptor in North America that lives underground. In Florida, you can find the burrowing owls in yards, vacant lots and golf courses.”
According to the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, Cape Coral has the largest population of Florida burrowing owls with upwards of 2,500 burrows in the city’s limits. The owls are so abundant that the city decided to name it the official bird of Cape Coral in 2005. However, Black said this move to the city wasn’t a natural occurrence, but rather forced.
“Burrowing owls used to be fairly abundant over a lot of the Florida peninsula, but as people moved in, especially down in the middle of the state, this pressured the owls to move on to other areas,” Black said. “About the time they were starting to experience some of this pressure, the developers moved in and started taking the trees down and clearing lots in Cape Coral. This huge open area was absolutely perfect for all of these displaced owls.”
In Sanibel, Black said burrowing owls aren’t as abundant with the birds preferring open areas instead of the heavily vegetated island. Instead, bird photographers rush to Cape Coral to catch a glimpse of the often-grounded owl.
“Birders and wildlife photographers flock to Cape Coral to see these guys,” Black said. “They are a really big draw. These guys are so photogenic and they’re so easy to photograph because they’re on the ground.”
Along with photographing the birds, Black also started surveying the Cape Coral owls in 2018 through the Cape Burrowing Owl Survey: A Citizen-Science Project. The survey, which is scheduled to continue through 2022, uses the help from volunteers to determine how many owls are in the area, as well as their characteristics.
“Following a mandatory attendance at a training session, the volunteers drive through a designated area,” Black said. “They observe and record where the burrows are located using GPS coordinates on their phones, number of burrows at each location, the number of adult and juvenile owls at each burrow, the eye color of each individual and if they see any owls that are banded.”
Black added that the longer they do the survey, the more accurate the data will be. She said a number of unforeseen circumstances can skew the data, which is why more years are needed for the survey to show real numbers.
“One of the things about doing field studies is you’re always dealing with things that you can’t control,” Black said. “The weather, the temperature, whether people get out at the same time of day, what kind of mood the owls are in and so on. These are some of the reasons that the longer you do a study like this, the more reliable your data becomes.”
With many of these birds enjoying their slice of Cape Coral, Black said Florida burrowing owls live well with humans. Despite the threat of habitat loss, these owls will find and make a home, even if there is already a human one there. With this, Black said humans have a responsibility to make sure they don’t harm these birds and take care of their neighbors.
“These guys coexist very well with humans,” Black said. “They live along the sidewalk, they live along the side of the road, they live along the driveway, they live by your front porch. But the Cape Coral owl populations are threatened by habitat loss, so these guys do have a lot of things that they have to deal with in order to be able to survive.”