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Marco will pay homeowners $250 for starter owl burrows

Marco Island City Council approved on Tuesday an agreement to pay homeowners $250 for starter owl burrows on their front yards. 

Jared Grifoni, City Council vice-chair, said this program is important to the island's community and wildlife.

"Marco Island is the first in the state to enact a program designed to expand the habitat of a threatened species (while) rewarding citizens who wish to participate voluntarily," Grifoni wrote in an email to the Eagle

"We will be an example of positive and cooperative action to the entire state."

Grifoni said he expects the program to start next month.

"The goal was to have everything in place by the start of nesting season," Grifoni wrote.

Burrowing owl nesting season starts in February and ends in July.

Audubon of the Western Everglades (AWE), a grassroots conservation organization in Southwest Florida, will be in charge of recruiting property owners, conducting annual site visits and documenting the use of the starter burrows by the owls, according to the agreement.

Audubon staff and volunteers will also be responsible for digging burrows, not the property owners, said Brad Cornell, AWE policy director.

"We have had some trouble with folks digging their own, and sometimes in poor spots," Cornell said.

The city will provide grants only if the burrows remain 'potentially occupied' for at least one nesting season, said Allison Smith, manager of AWE's Owl Watch program.

Allison Smith, manager of Audubon of the Western Everglades' Owl Watch program, speaks to Marco Island City Council during a meeting on Jan. 21.

From December:City of Marco Island may soon pay homeowners to dig starter owl burrows in front yards

Potentially occupied burrows include active burrows, which contain eggs or are used by flightless chicks, and inactive burrows, which have no evident indications of recent occupancy but its entrance remains open, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

FWC and others will collect data, including capturing, banding, and placing transmitters on burrowing owls and scoping of burrows, according to the agreement.

Cornell said the initiative is part of a research program, the Eagle reported last month.

"We are trying to figure out whether this is an effective way to stabilize an urban owl population in the state of Florida," Cornell said during a City Council meeting in December.

"We have some preliminary numbers that are encouraging but certainly not final."

In Marco there are 91 starter burrows, Smith said.

"About a third of them have attracted owls, meaning owls have been seen at a burrow or we have seen some evidence of digging," Smith said.

In the fall of 2017, Owl Watch staff began meeting with Marco homeowners who wanted starter burrows on their front yards.

We dig a hole one-foot deep at an angle, we pile all the sand next to it so it looks like an owl burrow and we put a wooden perch for them to stand on, Smith said.

Then it's just a matter of time before burrowing owls start moving in, according to Smith.

The vast majority of burrowing owls in Marco live on vacant lots but as people build new houses they may eventually run out of places to live.

The island is developing pretty rapidlyand in 20 years there may not be enough vacant lots, Smith said.

Two owls enjoy a starter burrow in Marco Island on Nov. 22, 2019. The human-made burrow is part of an initiative of Audubon of the Western Everglade's Owl Watch program to create new homes for the small creatures as new construction on empty lots continues to leave them with fewer places to raise their chicks.

From November:Burrowing owls under attack on Marco Island but many fight to protect them

Andy Serafin, one of the residents whose starter burrow attracted owls, said he learned of the program after seeing it in the Eagle.

"It just so happens that right at that time my brother had passed away and he was a big 'birderer' up in the Chicago area," Serafin said to the Eagle in November 

"I saw the ad and it kind of clicked with me that it would be a really cool thing to do for my brother."

Serafin said he wrote his brother's name on the perch but it faded away.

"We waited a few months and [...] one owl came and got its partner," Serafin said. "(We) waited a few more months and next thing you know we got a few eggs in the nest."

Serafin said when residents and visitors stop to look at the burrowing owls he uses the opportunity educate them on the matter and answer any questions they may have.

Often the burrowing owls can be seen from his dining room window while he eats.

"It's kind of fascinating to watch," Serafin said.

Property owners interested in the program can call AWE to 239-643-7822 or send an email to owlwatchmarco@gmail.com.

Learn about burrowing owls

  • Burrowing owls are water bottle-sized birds, standing 7-10 inches tall, and weighing 5-9 ounces, or about as much as a baseball.
  • These owls occupied Florida’s prairies north of the Everglades; however, most of these grasslands have been developed.
  • Today burrowing owls can be found on prairie remnants and pastures throughout the state, as well as in several coastal cities. 
  • These owls spend the breeding season in and around their burrows, which they typically dig themselves.
  • Male owls can often be seen standing on a nearby perch or at the burrow entrance, watching vigilantly for predators or passing prey while females and young chicks stay below ground.
  • Outside nesting season, these owls seek shelter in a variety of places outside their burrow like shrubs, trees, porches and dry culverts. 
  • Burrowing owl's main threat is the continued loss of habitat, including construction activities, and harassment by humans and domesticated animals. 
  • Heavy floods can also destroy burrows, which can cause the destruction of eggs and owlets. 
  • Other threats include increased predation by ground and aerial predators in the burrowing owl’s habitat, and vehicle strikes.
  • Burrowing owls are designated by the state as a threatened species.
  • Taking, possessing or selling burrowing owls, their nests or eggs is prohibited without a permit.

Sources: Audubon of the Western EvergladesFlorida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission