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Marco Island pays homeowners $250 for 'starter' owl burrows as nesting season begins

The city of Marco Island paid more than a dozen homeowners $250 each for having successful starter burrows in their front yards last year in an effort to expand the burrowing owl's habitat, a first in the city's history.

Burrowing owls are small birds designated as threatened by the state of Florida that live in open areas, spending most of the time on the ground where they dig burrows to nest. When the burrows are initially dug by people to encourage further digging by the owls, they are called "starter burrows."

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

Brad Cornell, policy associate with Audubon of the Western Everglades, said last week burrowing owls have dug 13 out of approximately 110 starter burrows deep enough for these to be used for nesting. The owl needs to excavate an 18-inch-long burrow in order for the homeowner to qualify for the incentive.

When this happens, burrows are considered "potentially occupied" and are protected by state law just like regular burrows, Cornell said. Taking, possessing, or selling burrowing owls, their nests or eggs is prohibited without a permit.

Cornell said the results are encouraging.

"It seems to work, and we just need to increase the number of people who are participating," Cornell said last week.

Two owls enjoy a starter burrow on Marco Island on Nov. 22, 2019.

Cornell said the purpose of the program is to create living space for burrowing owls in front yards as empty lots, the owls' primary habitat, continue to be developed.

"As vacant lots get filled out, we are going to lose the owls unless we figure out a way to entice them to move into already built lots," Cornell said.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson wrote in an email Tuesday the agency appreciates the effort to create new homes for burrowing owls on Marco Island.

"We hope to use this effort to evaluate the success of voluntary conservation efforts for the owls. Before we can effectively assess the results, we want to give the owls more time to find and settle in the starter burrows," wrote Carol Lyn Parrish, public information director with FWC.

City Council Chairman Jared Grifoni said last week during a council meeting he hopes the program lasts forever. 

"We are going to continue this program, hopefully in perpetuity, to increase the habitat on the island for this unofficial bird of Marco Island," Grifoni said.

From 2020:Owl Walk: Audubon hosts tour of Marco Island’s burrowing owls

City Council approved last year an agreement with Audubon and FWC to pay homeowners for successful starter burrows. The agreement includes a $250 incentive for each year a property owner keeps a potentially occupied starter burrow.

Audubon is in charge of recruiting property owners, digging the starting burrows, conducting annual site visits and documenting the use of the starter burrows by the owls, according to the agreement. 

FWC collects data, including capturing, banding and placing transmitters on owls, and the city funds the grant money.

Marco Island resident Andy Serafin said in late 2019 he volunteered to have a starter burrow in his front yard in honor of his late brother who was an avid bird watcher. In the picture, Serafin looks at the camera while two owls enjoy the burrow on Nov. 22, 2019.

Andy Serafin, one of the residents who received the $250 check last week, said he volunteered in honor of his late brother, who was an avid bird watcher in Chicago, writing his name on the owls' perch. 

Serafin signed up for Audubon's starter burrow initiative before the city agreed to pay the incentive. The initiative began in 2015.

"We waited a few months and one owl came and got its partner," Serafin told the Eagle in late 2019. "A few more months, and next thing you know we got a few eggs in the nest."

Serafin said he educates residents and visitors when they stop by his house to look at the burrowing owls. Serafin said he can often see the owls from his dining room window during nesting season.

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

Last year, there were about 400 burrows on Marco made entirely by the owls, an Audubon report shows. The organization determined 255 burrowing owl pairs nested on the island and six in Naples for a total of 261 pairs, 62 more compared to 2019.

Of these pairs, 79% had at least one chick that became old enough to fly, a benchmark used to determine if a pair was successful in raising chicks, for a total of 586 chicks fledged.

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

Contact Omar at omar.rodriguezortiz@naplesnews.com, and follow him on Twitter as @Omar_fromPR. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.