SAVING THE WESTERN BURROWING OWL

The burrowing owl isn’t your average owl: It doesn’t live in trees, and it’s not nocturnal. It makes its nest underground — usually in abandoned rodent burrows — and is active both day and night. But human population explosion has reduced the charismatic western burrowing owl’s breeding populations by more than 60 percent, and counting.

Early accounts of the owl in California described it as one of the state’s most common birds. In the late 1860s, according to one ornithologist, “burrowing owls stood on every little knoll” around San Diego. As late as 1975, it was described as “bordering on ubiquitous” in Southern California. But by 2003, urban development had nearly eliminated breeding owls from all of the California coast. More recent surveys show that the bird’s Imperial Valley population declined by 27 percent just from 2007 to 2008.

Following 14 years of unsuccessful efforts by the California Burrowing Owl Consortium to protect rapidly declining populations in urbanizing areas, the Center and allies petitioned in 2003 to protect the California population of the owl under the California Endangered Species Act. The petition showed that breeding owls were eliminated from almost one-quarter of their former range in California, continue to decline in an additional quarter of their range, and are extremely sparsely distributed over an additional 43 percent. But the state refused to list the owl, based largely on an inaccurate, inconsistent report by the California Department of Fish and Game; documents later obtained by environmental groups revealed the agency had suppressed its own biologist recommendations that the owl be considered for endangered or threatened status.

We continue to advocate for protection of the western burrowing owl. The Institute for Bird Populations is conducting a follow-up statewide survey to determine if owl populations are still declining, and the Center is working to protect the biodiversity of California as a whole through our Golden State Biodiversity Initiative. Our efforts to combat urban sprawl throughout the Southwest and California will also help preserve burrowing owl habitat.