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

These birds are all located on Marco’s dwindling supply of vacant lots, raising a question of where do they go when their habitat is built upon

Lance Shearer

Burrowing owls really dig Marco Island. This is true both literally and figuratively; no fewer than 218 pairs of the diminutive raptor currently make their home on the island, and those homes are, as the birds’ name suggests, underground holes burrowed into the sand.

Thoroughly wild birds who hunt a variety of prey for their diet – “basically anything smaller than they are,” said Allison Smith, biologist and Owl Watch Project Manager for Audubon of the Western Everglades – Marco Island’s burrowing owls have adapted to living on the intensely developed island.

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The owls readily allow humans to approach within 10 feet or even closer, simply fixing visitors with a baleful stare. For a species that seems to have no neck, they swivel their heads with great range and rapidity.

Saturday morning, Smith led a group on an “owl walk,” visiting a succession of burrows, five different sites within the space of a few hundred yards, all within a short stroll of Mackle Park. As the group walked, Smith shared her extensive knowledge of the birds. The presentation was supposed to begin with a slideshow, but the room at Mackle Park was not available due to the pandemic, so she walked and talked about the birds as the group of 10 looked at them on their nests.

A burrowing owl gets its feathers ruffled. As part of their Owl Watch program, the Audubon Society held a program Saturday morning, taking a walking tour of burrowing owl sites and explaining this threatened but locally numerous bird.

These burrows visited Saturday were all located on Marco’s dwindling supply of vacant lots, raising a question of where do they go when their habitat is built upon.

Burrowing owls are a threatened species in Florida and have seen their classic habitat of open prairies in Florida’s interior crowded out by development.

The owl burrows are roped off by Owl Watch volunteers to keep humans at least some distance away, and warn against accidentally collapsing the diggings, although there have been instances of burrows intentionally destroyed or contaminated. Lot owners can obtain an incidental take permit and pay a consultant to relocate owls before building. Smith guesstimated the total cost at around $3,000, which she said is a small fraction of the cost of a million-dollar home.

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The volunteers also furnish the owls with an amenity the birds seem to greatly appreciate, a T-shaped wooden perch, almost like a front porch from which the owls can survey their surroundings.

Many of the birds seen Saturday morning were sitting on the perches, or next to the entry hole which holds nest and chicks, resting after their nighttime labors. Nesting begins around the end of February. The owls are nocturnal hunters, said Smith, taking traditional gender roles, with the female sitting the clutch of eggs and the male bringing home the bacon, or more likely mole crickets, lizards, frogs, and small birds.

“I’ve seen them grab birds out of the sky,” said Smith, adding that sometimes these cute-looking birds will eat each other, with chicks which are the last to hatch out occasionally becoming a meal for their older nestmates. “It’s best to be the first one hatched – the big chicks will eat the little ones.”

Smith showed owl walk participants the bands they put on the owls’ legs, with a unique sequence of colored plastics plus a metal band inscribed with a number that is registered with an international database. In the western U.S., burrowing owls range from Canada to Mexico, but the eastern population is confined to a small swath of southern Florida, with concentrations on Cape Coral and Marco Island important to their overall survival. While threatened, the burrowing owl is thriving on Marco, with numbers of burrows, nesting parents and fledglings increasing since the Owl Watch program began. There are annual fluctuations, but it 2016, there were just 118 pairs, said Smith.

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Owl Watch may have slots for new volunteers, and donations are always welcome. If people want to help the owls, they can go online to audubonwe.org, or call 239-643-7822.