MARCO ISLAND — There certainly is no place like home, and as humans living on Marco Island we share our particular brand of paradise with a feathered friend that for centuries has been known for wisdom, patience, and the ability to use forethought when choosing very best place to live.
Most residents of Marco know about the wise and sage little owls that share our island, but what almost everyone doesn't know about these very astute little creatures is enough to stagger the imagination. The burrowing owls that choose to live on Marco Island don't have relatives in nearby Naples, or Golden Gate, or Everglades City. In fact, there are only three areas in Florida – including Marco – that can claim the distinction of having the extraordinary little birds as permanent residents.
If you happen to be a burrowing owl on Marco Island you are certainly not alone and part of a very special community. There are now over 90 burrowing owl nests on the island — one of the largest populations in Florida — and there will be more on the way because of the mating, nesting, and fledgling season arriving with the cooler winter weather.
The reason the burrowing owls have chosen to share the largest of the Ten Thousand Islands just might be proof of their wisdom and intelligence, but the most well founded motive for choosing the Marco zip code might well be attributed to a very special host of generous volunteers.
Because the empty lots on the island must be mowed, the Burrowing owls of Marco really do require human TLC and dedicated attention. The nesting areas are routinely cleaned, monitored, and labeled and have new roosting stands placed near the opening of the nests. Fresh orange privacy tape must often be replaced along with the wooden stakes that are the boundary markers to the habitat. The interior of the protected area must be mowed with lawn trimmers because if the entrance to the nest is overgrown the owls will move to a freshly mowed lot and begin an unnecessary migration.
"When it comes time for mating season," Owl-prowl volunteer Marty Roddy explained, "The owls decorate their nests. They bring in shiny objects with lots of color to impress their mates and they change the decorations often. Sometimes it will be a brightly colored packet of Marlboro cigarettes and that can be replaced with wintergreen snuff can. I've seen little patches of carpeting as if the owls are remodeling for nesting time."
Marty Roddy is one of eight volunteers that routinely go out on owl-prowl- patrol and care for the owl burrows on Marco Island. The volunteers have a constantly updated map of the 90-plus nests that encompass the island and have their own routes and established routines.
As the human volunteers and owl inhabitants meet face to face, the owls will often behave as humans would during a time of lawn maintenance or house cleaning. They will briefly fly to a nearby perch, and watch with scrutiny as their little estate is groomed by weed trimmers.
"Some of the volunteers have just a few nests that they care for and monitor," Nancy Richie explained. "They visit the nests at least once a week and they really take pride in what their working on. Other volunteers visit as many as 20 sites a week and work very hard to ensure the adult owls and their fledglings are well cared for. I really appreciate the hours and dedication of all my volunteers."
Nancy Richie is Marco Island's official Environmental Specialist and is the troop leader and facilitator of the Burrowing Owl volunteers. Anyone interested in volunteering or would like more information may contact Nancy at the Marco City Hall.
Two of the Burrowing owl volunteers are Jean Hall and Julie Ausbon and they share a passion for the owls that is truly remarkable. The two volunteers drive out at least twice a week from Naples to monitor the owls and groom their nests.
"I have always loved nature," Jean Hall declared. "I began by searching for Rosette spoonbills to photograph and then heard about the Burrowing Owls of Marco. When I first came to the island and saw these wonderful little birds, I just fell in love with everything about them and wanted to help."
In the beginning Jean was content to drive out to Marco and set up her camera and tripod for photography. After she was stationed near an owl burrow—at a discrete distance—curious visitors would often arrive and ask if she knew or volunteered for Nancy Richie.
Nancy not only facilitates the care and nurturing of all the owl burrows on Marco but she also monitors the specially protected gopher tortoises that excavate and move into empty owl burrows and set up their own homes. Julie Ausbon began her owl nurturing with Jean Hall last February. "I love doing yard work and would do it every day."Jean explained. "It is so cool to watch these special little guys and know that we're really helping out."
Dan Flaherty has been volunteering and caring for the owl nests for over eight years. "Even in the dog days of cleaning nests during July, August, and September," Dan recalls, "And even when soaking wet with sweat and dirt, I still find myself smiling when I look at those cute little owls bobbing up and down and trying to chase me away from their nest area or tilting their heads sideways while trying to figure out what I'm doing crawling around their burrow."
Veteran volunteer Flaherty was adamant when he explained: "If it wasn't for Nancy and her owl-prowl every week with Eva Schliesser and Lori Fredericks I don't think we would have the thriving Burrowing Owl community that produced over 200 owlets this past season."
Carole Paterson, Cheryl Atkinson, Irene Horowitz, and local artist Bruce Summerville, also belong to the very special owl-prowl crew that nurture the nests and prove that on Marco Island: home is where the heart is.
According to the official ornithological community the Burrowing Owl is listed as a species of special concern in Florida as is known in scientific circles as Athene cunicularia. The small owls with the black and brown spots can easily be observed standing on long, spindly legs and the soft sandy ground of vacant lots on Marco Island and make their homes just under the loamy surface. They fly extremely well but have the unique ability to use their feet and legs to dig burrows large enough to accommodate an entire family in comfort and privacy.
After extensive excavation, the little owls are ready to set up housekeeping. The birds reproduce in March and April and normally guard 5 to 8 eggs in a clutch. The female incubates the eggs for about 28 days while the male searches for food. The fledglings appear at the burrow's entrance about two weeks after hatching and are able to hunt for small insects and lizards in just over one month.
The adults prefer a more sophisticated diet, such as moles and mice, but often search for more seasonable entrees such as grasshoppers and beetles. In the winter season, the perfectly camouflaged little raptors dine on very small birds, and other exotics such as lizards and small frogs.
An adult Burrowing Owl measures only about ten inches high but what they make up in wisdom and choice of island lifestyle is just another reason why all the inhabitants of Marco know ... there is no place like home.