By Vern Hee – Special to the Pahrump Valley Times
The burrowing owl is once again in the spotlight. A growing number of residents and West Branch Red Rock Audubon Society, (WBRRAS) members have taken on the task of studying the bird in a citizen scientist study sponsored by the Red Rock Audubon Society and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Services.
According to the USFWS, the burrowing owl, Athene cunicularia, habitat ranges from South America all the way to the Canadian border.
The owl is 9 to 11 inches tall, has no ear tufts and is brown with white spots, and whitish eye brows. The throat is interrupted by a dark collar. These owls are thought to be diurnal but mostly are nocturnal. The male and female are roughly the same size.
To tell the difference between the two, use color. The male will be slightly more pale. Scientists believe the faded color comes from spending more time in the sun. The female spends most of her time in the spring incubating the eggs.
In the Mojave Desert, these owls prefer flat country with sparse vegetation. The burrows found in the Mojave are often made by other species like the desert tortoise, the kit fox or ground squirrel.
In urban areas, the owl even borrows from man using large underground pipes in urban areas. The owl eats insects, small rodents birds and reptiles.
Richard Cantino, project manager for WBRRAS, has been studying burrowing owls here for the past year and has located over 100 burrows with help from valley residents, ornithologist Dorothy Crowe and Shoshone naturalist Len Warren.
What began as a personal quest for Cantino has led to a study involving the USFWS. Christiana Manville, of the USFWS and study project manager, said, “This is a citizen science project.
“We did one similar to this in Las Vegas Valley in 2008 and 2009. During this same time, the U.S. Geological Survey, was doing a similar density study in Clark County, so we were able to compare the results of the urban owls.”
She says the study will focus on how many owl chicks survive to fledglings. “With the nesting success rate, then we can compare how the owls are doing in the urban area versus the owls in the undisturbed desert.”
Manville said the studies were positive. “I was surprised by the nesting success being so high,” she said. In her study the urban owls increased their nesting rate from 3 to 4 chicks per year. This shows owls in the urban environment may have plentiful food but they must also overcome man. Cars, domestic dogs and cats often take their toll.
Manville said it’s a great time to be studying the burrowing owl here because the USGS will start a large density study conducted by Crowe in the undisturbed desert regions of Nye County during the same time Pahrump will be studying the bird.
Besides nesting survival rates, Cantino believes the study will also tell scientists other things about the owls. “Are they staying here year to year or are kids vandalizing the burrows? Is motorcycle traffic tearing them up? Is ATV traffic disturbing nesting habitat?
Development was a big issue in Las Vegas and several developers were asked to hold off until the chicks were out of the nest.
Cantino has excited many members of the WBRRAS and non-members to aid him in the study. “So far I have 12 people and there are seven that haven’t called me back to confirm. We’ll need people to collect the data until August or September when the chicks leave. It will start some time early April or late March.” People interested in the study will then report to Cantino at least monthly.
The study will focus on burrows that Cantino and Crowe found last year. Cantino commented, “During the breeding season, we located 40 breeding pairs, we would like to know how many stay in the area all year long.”
Public sightings and tips from those people were investigated, but when the calls stopped coming in, and burrows became hard to find, Cantino sought the help of Crowe.
Crowe has found 100 to 200 burrows with her method and she is considered an expert in finding burrows in the Mojave Desert.
Crowe said in other areas outside of the Mojave, the terrain is flat and the burrows are relatively easy to locate in the daytime but here, the creosote bushes grow tall and often hamper searchers looking for nests.
“What we do is wait for dark and then just listen for three minutes to see if we can hear the owls call. We do 30 seconds of the owl vocalizations (recorded owl calls) followed by 30 seconds of listening for the owl.
“Most of the time owls will respond by the second time if they are there.” Crowe explains that the burrowing owl is very territorial “so we are kind of simulating a territorial response from them. So they just think we are another owl.”
She added, “It keeps singing, and at times I have walked right up to the burrow which is pretty sweet.”
Crowe believes once these studies are done, scientists can take what they have learned as base information and go to other states where documentation and studies are needed.
Crowe said from the Nye County density study and the Citizen Study, people in Pahrump and the county will have a better idea where to develop in the future and how to better to conserve this bird.
To report an owl burrow or find out more about the study, call Cantino at 727-0645.