‘Owl in the Family’: Burrowing owls have learned to coexist with Islanders

Lance Shearer

When you’re a threatened species, it helps to have friends. On Marco Island, the burrowing owl population is thriving, in no small part due to the efforts of a dedicated cadre of volunteers under the auspices of Audubon of the Western Everglades.

It’s kind of an odd match, having a population of wild birds living so close to so many humans, on a largely developed island with ever fewer available sites for the owls’ underground burrows. But Marco’s not-so-elusive burrowing owls seem to have made their peace with living in an urbanized environment. They have seen their classic habitat of open prairies in Florida’s interior crowded out by development.

The owls coexist with people all over Marco Island, and this year, according to owl biologist Allison Smith of Audubon of the Western Everglades, about 252 nesting pairs established burrows on the island, raising as many as a thousand young owlets. The birds let people approach to within under 10 feet without flying away, just keeping a baleful yellow eye on nearby humans. For a species that seems to have no neck, they swivel their heads with great range and rapidity.

The owls’ human protectors, known as Owl Watch, keep a continual eye on their charges, monitoring each know burrow weekly and searching out new ones. Approximately 60 strong, the Owl Watch volunteers are kept busy by the unrelenting excavation efforts of the diminutive owls.

“Owls constantly dig burrows,” said Owl Watch volunteer Jean Hall. “When we find a new one, we mark it off” to keep people at least some small distance away, staking out the burrow and surrounding area with PVC pipe and black nylon line used in crab traps. “There are always new sites popping up.”

Often, said Owl Watch member Connie Nemes, one pair of owls will dig up to five burrows, perhaps to give them an option in case one is compromised. When the volunteers find a new burrow, they guesstimate where it goes underground, and include that space in their roped-off area, so that humans or mechanized equipment don’t collapse the burrows.

While many people on Marco are thrilled to share the island with burrowing owls, that sentiment has not been universal, and there have been instances of loads of fill dirt dropped on burrows. One incident recently brought a high degree of publicity to the burrowing owls, when a property owner was videotaped contaminating an owl burrow with mothballs, which would be poisonous to the owls. The case was scheduled to be heard by the code enforcement special magistrate but was delayed.

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Brad Cornell, policy director for Audubon of the Western Everglades, said there is no need for land owners to harm burrowing owls, that a process is established that allows them to build on their property while still safeguarding the owls.

“You have to get an incidental take permit, and pay a mitigation fee,” and likely hire a biologist, but then outside the February to July breeding season, you can fill in the burrows without harming the owls. The flip side, he said, is that land owners can establish a “starter burrow,” creating a place for owls to come and make a nest.

It’s easy to fall for the tiny burrowing owls, said Nemes. “They don’t only burrow into the sand, they burrow into your heart.”

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