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Burrowing owls are the only North American bird of prey that nests exclusively underground. (Steve Mandel)

The Little Owls That Live Underground

Burrowing owls can thrive amid agricultural development and urbanization—so why are they imperiled?

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“The situation in Antioch is the classic case of what so frequently happens with burrowing owls when an area is developed,” Barclay says. “Other species usually vacate earlier, but the burrowing owl often stays until the bulldozers arrive.”

Author and biologist Thomas Roberts, who has studied burrowing owls, notes that with effective management the bird can thrive in urban settings, especially in abandoned landfills, at airports and at the margins of golf courses and athletic fields. The great irony, Roberts said, is that the bird’s ability to coexist with people puts it squarely in the path of suburban expansion.

“Burrowing owl management is not inherently difficult,” Barclay says. “The owl has rather modest requirements that can be met in a variety of settings, usually without vast acreages.”

The burrowing owl’s predicament strikes a chord with people like Scott Artis not because the bird’s situation is so rare but because it is so common. A report released in March by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar showed that a third of the nation’s 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline. Like the burrowing owl, many of these species are at risk because of habitat loss.

Protecting the bird’s habitat is the type of effort that Barclay thinks is needed. “Without a commitment of political will, we will likely continue to monitor the owl’s decline and disappearance,” he said. “This is a bird we should be able to accommodate, even in the face of development. The challenge is not whether it can be done, but rather to figure out how to do it.”

John Moir is an award-winning science journalist and author of Return of the Condor: The Race to Save Our Largest Bird from Extinction.

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