Birds of a feather: Marco Islanders give a hoot about 'the little guys'

Lisa Conley
Marco Eagle

If there's one thing Marco Islanders are good at, it's coming together for a cause. From supporting community members who are battling cancer or other illnesses to providing scholarships for local students, 'giving' and 'caring' are words used often around the island. Now, community members are once again joining forces, this time to protect one of their own that's in danger: burrowing owls.

A burrowing owl guards his nest on Marco Island.

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In January, the burrowing owl's listing status changed from "Species of Special Concern" to state "Threatened." The new status will bring with it a new set of guidelines for protecting the species; the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) hosted a burrowing owl's stakeholder meeting Tuesday to receive community input on what those new guidelines should entail.

"You're advising the staff on what you think they can do to protect these owls," David Arnold of the FWC explained. 

The two dozen or so stakeholders brainstormed ways in which the new guidelines can both avoid and minimize "take," the term used when humans "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect a borrowing owl or its eggs."

A burrowing owl, a protected species, sits perched above its nest on a plot of land on Cottonwood Court on Marco Island.

Taking commonly occurs because burrowing owls are attracted to the disturbed soil conditions associated with early construction activities, according to the FWC; hence residential and commercial construction can subsequently be a major cause of burrow destruction.

Other common problems include the collapsing of nests that were incorrectly believed to be inactive or the improper removal of owls, which may result in injuries or even death.

To avoid those problems, the stakeholders discussed the idea of "authorized owl agents"; in short, the agents would be certified by the FWC and they, rather than the property owner, would be the ones to determine if a nest is truly inactive and assist with the relocation of owls after the property owner obtains the proper permit for take.

According to the FWC, there's already a similar protocol in place for one of the island's other unique inhabitants: gopher tortoises.

A burrowing owl guards his nest on Marco Island.

The stakeholders also threw around the idea of prohibiting the collapsing of inactive nests during nesting season, which is typically February 15 through July 10.

However, Marco Island Police Captain Dave Baer, who attended the meeting, warned the stakeholders that they have to be careful when restricting what property owners can and can't do.

"It's a balancing act between commerce and the environment, and if you make it so they can't remove the burrows at all, it's my opinion that they're going to do it anyway, illegally," he said. "So let them be a good guy instead of forcing them to be a bad guy."

The group also discussed some proactive things people can do to both help the owls and avoid having to file a permit for take, including: 

  • avoiding actions that could kill or injure owls or eggs
  • conducting activities greater than 10 feet from a burrow year-round to reduce the likelihood of burrow collapse
  • conducting activities greater than 33 feet from a burrow during the nesting season to reduce the likelihood of disturbing nesting pairs
  • staking and roping off the area around the burrow prior to activities

For more information on burrowing owls, visit myfwc.com.