Enchanting burrowing owls make home in Taos

Burrowing owls return to the abandoned prairie dog holes where they are hatched and raised as chicks. When the prairie dog holes are covered over or destroyed, it may destroy the home burrow of an owl family. Photo by John Lay

Taos birdwatchers eagerly await John Lay's email missives. "Both owls on burrow," he wrote in early April. Like expectant parents, we're wondering if there will be owlets.

Lay, a Taos photographer and birdwatcher, has photographed the iconic western burrowing owls near his home for the past two years. "These days," he said, "we can watch nest cams and get some idea of bird family behavior, but it doesn't quite feel the same as watching two birds raise a whole family from about 50 feet away. That's enchanting."

Burrowing owls are small, ground-dwelling owls that are active in the day. Their diet includes grasshoppers, moths, beetles, mice, snakes and scorpions.

They're called "burrowing" because they use the burrows of ground squirrels, badgers, skunks - but especially prairie dogs - for nest sites.

They migrate from as far south as Patagonia in South America and breed throughout the western portion of the U.S. and Canada, but there's also a population in Florida.

Amazingly, the owls return to the burrows where they hatched, which brings us to this particular parcel of land in the Ranchitos area.

Mr. J., a rancher who prefers not to be identified, is the landowner. He said that when you stand on a tractor or a combine for eight hours a day, you see a lot of stuff, contradicting notions that numbers of burrowing owls are declining.

"Burrowing owls are all over Taos County," he said. A no-nonsense kind of person, Mr. J. explained how he's worked pastures up and down the county. On this particular pasture, he runs cattle in the winter and dryland farms in the summer.

But how can a farmer disc the land, blade over prairie dog burrows and not hurt owls? Mr. J. has an answer.

But first, you need to know that folks have strong opinions about prairie dogs.

Tom Jervis, president of Sangre de Cristo Audubon, said the status of burrowing owls in New Mexico is closely tied to the fate of prairie dogs. "The widespread persecution of prairie dogs, including sport shooting, has played a role in the decline of the owls," he said by email.

In Santa Fe County, populations may have tanked. Jim Walters, a retired biologist, has monitored voluntarily a handful of sites for some 15 years in the county.

"In 2008, there were 68 pairs of birds - pairs, mind you, not individuals - at the places I keep an eye on," said Walters. "In 2016, there were five nests. In 2017, I can't find a single nest."

He's pretty sure what's to blame. "The consistent, persistent, wrenching destruction of prairie dog habitat leads to the decline of owl populations," he said.

In fact, a Santa Fe owl made headlines in local and national news outlets last summer when it was shot and killed. Later, a $5,000 reward was put up for information on the perpetrator. Burrowing owls are protected by the U.S. Migratory Treaty Act from capture or killing.

Yet some argue that prairie dog colonies need to be controlled. They say prairie dogs are a health risk and can wreak havoc on cropland.

Max Martinez, wildlife biologist with the USDA Wildlife Services, would agree. But he lays much of the blame on development. "Thousands of acres are lost in Taos County to urban sprawl," he said. "This puts more pressure on the little greenbelt acres where people are trying to make a living off a small tract of land. They are trying to keep their land in agricultural production."

He explained that development puts the squeeze on prairie dogs, too, which move into the remaining tracts of lands.

Martinez, who offers ranchers and farmers classes on prairie dog control through the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, said the biggest problem he sees in the county is apathy. "Prairie dogs are a grassland species. They don't belong in cropland. Private property owners need to be encouraged to do some kind of prairie dog control."

What are the available options? And how do they impact owls?

Prairie dogs can be trapped and released, though Martinez cautions you can't just dump them somewhere else. "Both the [U.S. Forest Service] and [Bureau of Land Management] are averse to dumping on federal lands," he explains.

The classes he offers through TSWCD lead to certification in the use of what are called "restricted use pesticides." Zinc phosphide is the only bait registered for prairie dog control in New Mexico, and you must be certified to use it.

But if an owl eats the bait, it dies, too. Martinez pointed out that property owners need to flag any burrow that has evidence of owl occupation, such as feathers or white droppings. He'll even come out to your property if you need help identifying these signs.

Maggie Grimason, senior editor of Aloft, a publication of the Albuquerque-based nonprofit Hawks Aloft, Inc., wrote in 2016: "In a nation where only 10,000 pairs of Burrowing Owls are estimated to be in existence, the unwarranted cruelty of human beings is not just a federal crime … but a crime against the entire ecosystem that is enhanced and made whole by the presence of these owls."

Grimason said by phone that people should leave the prairie dog populations as they are. "Let their natural predators take care of them," she advised.

In fact, many species depend on prairie dogs, including birds of prey. Valerie Williams, wildlife biologist for the field offices of the BLM in Taos, said the prairie dog is a "keystone species," meaning that it provides habitat for a variety of animals.

Both the BLM and the Forest Service consider the owl a sensitive species in New Mexico. Jay Gatlin, wildlife biologist for the Carson National Forest, said this means that foresters must "consider potential effects to this species and its habitat for projects that occur within" the national forest.

The happy ending for this story is that in June, three little owlets popped out of the burrow. Rest assured, Mr. J. is keeping good watch over them.

And on any given day, there's sure to be someone with binoculars scanning his pasture. If they're respectful of both the owls and his property, he doesn't mind.

"I just like the owls," he said. "I think they're cool."

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