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Friday, September 17, 2021

Burrowing owl population in Davis faces drastic decline

SCOTT ARTIS / COURTESY
SCOTT ARTIS / COURTESY

Owls threatened by construction, dwindling food sources

One of the last breeding pairs of burrowing owls in Davis are living in Fermi Place, an empty lot adjacent to Highway 80 East and Target. The lot is currently for sale for $4 million, a price too high for conservation groups to purchase.

The Burrowing Owl Preservation Society (BOPS), a nonprofit that advocates for the burrowing owl population and educates the public about the species’ needs, conducted a census that showed an alarming 76 percent decline in the population between 2007 and 2014.

Catherine Portman, environmental activist and president of BOPS, explains that new construction, including stores, golf courses and housing developments, have consistently pushed the owls out of Yolo County. She explains that burrowing owls are highly threatened by land development because they exclusively burrow underground to hide from predators and receive shelter from extreme weather.

“If they had a burrow in one place and successfully had babies there, they will return. But when they return to buildings, they cannot do that,” Portman said. “The empty lot on Fermi is all that is left for [the owls]. This happens a lot in California, where development and new buildings pushes them out.”

According to Portman, although conservation efforts have been put into place, they are often inadequate.

“The [California] Department of Fish and Wildlife does not monitor the birds or require that they be tagged in any way. But they require proof for their protection. It is my position that, because the department has allowed this practice to go on, they have actually contributed to the decline of the burrowing owl population,” Portman said.

Without tagging, Portman explains that it is impossible to officially document the decline in the owl population and therefore earn legal status as an endangered species.

Portman plans to meet with members of the Davis City Council to ask for more aggressive protection of the owls. She has spoken at several city council meetings, asking the city to hire biologists with knowledge about burrowing owls to help conduct environmental impact statements for development projects.

Proposed solutions to protect the owls from construction are not effective, according to Portman, making it necessary for biologists who know about the species to be involved.

“Currently, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will require the developer to hire a biologist to put one-way doors on each burrow, but the biologist is not required to have knowledge of the burrowing owl,” Portman said. “These one-way doors actually trap the owls out of their own burrows.”

John McNerney, wildlife resource specialist for the City of Davis, agrees that the burrowing owl population has dropped in recent years but in addition to construction, a variety of factors could be contributing to the decline.

“They could be disappearing due to disease and drought. Food is less available, so they are not doing as well and have to search out new territories,” McNerney said. “[The] West Nile virus also came in and affected many of our bird species. When the owls get sick they have to go undercover, and when they die underground we cannot go and test them. Also, secondary agricultural anticoagulant pesticide poisoning affecting birds is well documented. With burrowing owls, this happens when they eat small mice and is certainly a concern.”

McNerney has also conducted censuses on the local burrowing owl population and documented a decline in the number of breeding owls since 2008 in the Yolo County region.

“It definitely raises concern and opens up questions about why the owls are in decline,” McNerney said.

Although the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has also tracked the declining burrowing owl population, the species is not listed as endangered and therefore lacks complete legal protection against land development.

Dr. Janet Foley, who holds a doctorate in ecology of infectious diseases in veterinary medicine from UC Davis, explained that the Center for Biodiversity rejected a petition to list the burrowing owl as endangered, citing a lack of evidence on the species’ population size.

“Getting a species listed as endangered is very, very difficult. It takes years and money, because you have to have the data to prove the status of the species,” Foley said. “Many people, however, are starting to talk about that process within a year or two. But the owls over by Target do not have a year or two.”

Written By: CAROLINE STAUDENRAUS – city@theaggie.org

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