Burrowing owls hold on as threatened species as Marco homes rise around them

A pair of mating burrowing owls emerge from their burrow to scan their immediate surroundings Thursday, March 1, 2018 in Marco Island.

Along the busiest road on Marco Island, a small owl no bigger than a child’s shoe buried itself head-first into the ground and kicked up a tuft of sand under a low-rising sun.

It stopped digging after a few seconds and rested upright, oblivious to the traffic rushing by a few feet away. The drivers, it seemed, were oblivious to it.

A burrowing owl, with multiple colored bands around its legs, scans its surroundings outside of its burrow Thursday, March 1, 2018 in Marco Island.

Burrowing owls are quickly becoming endangered across Florida. But not on Marco Island. There the shin-high mounds that mark the entrances to 6-foot-long burrows the owls painstakingly dig can be found in just about every other vacant lot and sandy field. The owls seem at home on Marco just feet away from bicycles and cars rolling by. In a pinch, the small birds can find shelter in drainage pipes, front porches and piles of debris.

The question is how long can it last?

A race is on to find out why burrowing owls have been thriving in Marco's suburb-like city before a steady stream of new homes paves over what has been their breeding ground.

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Researchers hope to learn whether the owls will use man-made "starter burrows" in quiet corners of front and backyards throughout the island. If the owls use the burrows on developed lots, biologists hope to see whether whatever circumstances are working for Marco Island can be copied in other parts of the state.

The best sign for the future of the Florida burrowing owl is how adaptable it has proved to be to development that already has happened, said Allison Smith, a researcher with the University of Florida. Smith is working with volunteers and Audubon of the Western Everglades to band the owls and draw blood samples this nesting season.

"They have a shot," Smith said. "They've been so tolerant so far around people and dealing with trash and noise. And people love them and want them here because they're charismatic and adorable."

Like the name suggests, the Florida burrowing owl is found only in Florida. There are other types of burrowing owls in the deserts of Arizona and Mexico. But only in Florida do the owls dig their own burrows.

During the nesting season, they puff up their feathers and use their wings to brace themselves as they bury their heads and kick up the sand with their feet. They couple up, male and female, and dig together. They typically dig 3 feet down and 5 to 7 feet across. They're more active during the day than night.

Inside the burrow, the mother lays the eggs and incubates while the father stands guard on a perch outside and collects cockroaches, lizards, insects and other food. By the end of the nesting season, the male's wings will be bleached from the sun and a shade lighter than the female's.

The chicks take several weeks to learn how to fly. Before they can fly, they run together out of the burrow in short bursts.

"They act like kittens," Smith said. "Wrestling each other and running around. You'll see them karate-kick each other."

Allison Smith, a student researcher at the University of Florida, returns a female burrowing owl to its home after banding its leg for future study in a vacant lot Thursday, March 1, 2018 in Marco Island. Smith has access to 60 total sites on the island allowing her to study and engage with these threatened birds.

The birds are territorial, except when it comes to their own offspring. 

"They don't normally tolerate other pairs digging burrows that close, but they're more tolerant when it's their offspring coming back," Smith said

This is the second season that Smith has been banding the owls on Marco. Chicks from last year have returned with mates to start their own burrows.

Smith starts early, right at sunrise. She sets one of two types of traps, either a small kennel-like box that is modeled after a raccoon trap or a mess of light fishing line that lassos the birds' feet when they walk in it.

If the birds are out of the burrow, Smith will use a recording of a male calling, which sometimes spurs the male owl back into the burrow to defend its territory.

Allison Smith, a student researcher at the University of Florida, bands a female burrowing owl for future study near a vacant lot Thursday, March 1, 2018 in Marco Island. The band will allow Smith to study the bird for years to come.

After catching one of the owls, Smith takes the bird into the quiet of her car, holding it still while she clasps two color-coded bands, almost bracelets, around each leg. The unique combinations of the four bands — metal, orange, yellow and blue — serve as the bird's name, read from top left to bottom right.

Volunteers want neighbors to recognize the bands so they can see whether the same birds are returning to their neighborhoods year after year.

Smith takes a small blood sample to test whether inbreeding is a problem or the population has enough genetic diversity to stay healthy. Then she releases the owl back at its burrow.

Monitoring for the owls began in 1999, when Nancy Richie, the city's environmental specialist at the time, took a yearly count of how many she could find. The first year turned up just a handful, no more than six.

The species was listed as threatened in 2016 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, often a first step toward being listed as endangered.

A report cited that year by the FWC concluded there could have been as few as 3,000 owls left in the state as of 2011, with the population expected to decline over the years as development continued. 

The birds have two known strongholds, Marco Island and about 55 miles to the north in coastal Cape Coral.

A burrowing owl retrieves the hind legs of a frog, a kill that was most likely leftover from a previous hunt, Thursday, March 1, 2018 in Marco Island.

They're prairie birds, by nature, Smith said. There might be more vacant lots in East Naples or Golden Gate Estates than on Marco Island, but the owls tend to avoid wooded areas to find sandy flat lands and low grass.

Threatened status provides greater protections for the burrows. Developers need a permit from FWC to destroy a burrow and aren't allowed to disturb the burrow during nesting season, which typically runs from October to May.

"But the owls will never prevent someone from building their home," said Brad Cornell, an environmental policy advocate with Audubon of the Western Everglades. "You can still build, you just need a permit."

More and more homeowners and volunteers started to join Richie on the counts, monitoring the small burrows and protecting them from lawn mowers. When Richie left the city, volunteer Jean Hall approached Audubon  to help run the program.

Hall and Audubon created Owl Watch, a group of more than 30 volunteers who monitor the nests and keeps track of chicks fledged at each.

They try to raise about $40,000 a year to help fund Smith's research with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and hire weed whackers to keep the grass around the burrows in check.

Allison Smith, a student researcher at the University of Florida, demonstrates how a trap is used to snag a burrowing owl as it enters or exits its burrow Thursday, March 1, 2018 in Marco Island.

Last year, the group found 234 burrows that were home to 340 adults that fledged 317 chicks. So far this nesting season, more than 240 burrows have been found. The birds seem to be unharmed by Hurricane Irma.

"We feel like it's in good shape," Hall said. "We have not been losing ground. But with the speed Marco is building out, all these empty lots will sooner rather than later be development. I'd love to think we can keep the population, but I'm not sure."

Much of that may depend on how successful starter burrows prove to be. The group will go to any homeowners that want the owls and dig a small mound with a little entrance and place a perch no more than a foot high.

The hope is the owls will use the burrows and nest in yards once the vacant lots are gone, but there has been little evidence of them using the burrows yet while there is still space on lots.

At the start of 2013, the latest data available, Marco officials estimated the city had 1,745 vacant lots left in the mostly residential community.

Since the end of the recession, the city has been permitting 200 to 300 new homes a year, although many of those have replaced tear-downs on already developed lots, said Raul Perez, the city's chief building official.

It's hard to say how long before the city might be built out, Perez said.

"The lots that had the best views were the first developed," he said. "So now as those places get a little older, people are buying homes for the land and tearing them down, so it's challenging to get an accurate estimate."

Judy Love and her husband, who live across the street from a pair of owls that have been standing guard over their burrow, are installing a starter burrow. The two birds have been digging their holes and staking out the lot across the street since the fall.

"We were so worried when we evacuated for the hurricane, but they’re still here," Love said. "You get so attached to them."