Tiny burrowing owls, the size of an average human hand, have all but disappeared from Hillsborough County due to habitat loss.
Bulldozers and road paving equipment plowed their dens as the county’s human population continued to grow. The county once had a thriving and dense population of burrowing owls.
These large-eyed, diurnal owls, listed in Florida as an endangered species, typically roost just outside their burrows in open fields, looking for insects or small rodents near an excavated pile of sand. Or they once were.
âThe reason they are listed is that they have experienced a pretty drastic population decline in recent years,â says Rebecca Schneider, regional biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “All of the animals listed have the underlying factor of habitat loss due to development or land use change encroachment and of course there are climate challenges.”
Enter Tampa Audubon. âIf you draw a line across the county, the southern half of it and further east, the development and so on has really wiped out the people of the area,â said Tampa President Audubon Ann Paul.
Audubon members learned of a successful project in southwest Florida where more than 400 artificial burrows have been set up for owls to provide them with a safe haven for nesting. And it worked. âNow we’re starting to do it here,â said Paul.
Audubon is working with the Hillsborough County Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program, a few schools, strawberry growers and ranchers to find locations for and set up false burrows.
âIf we can get the word out: if you have burrowing owls, let us know and we can set up burrows to help them survive,â and attract more of them, Paul said. âNatural burrows can collapse if someone drives a car in them or if a cow steps on them. Even if they’re not in the burrow, that’s a problem.
âI’ve been involved with Christmas bird counts for the past 15 years and they count the number of birds in the same geographic circle year after year,â says Sandy Reed, vice president of Tampa Audubon. “It occurred to me that on those counts, we just couldn’t find those Burrowing Owls anymore.”
That’s when Reed heard about the program in South Florida and contacted those involved. She learned that Hillsborough County and surrounding counties once had the highest number of burrowing owls in the country. “I was horrified that now we don’t have any.”
Non-folding false burrows
The artificial burrows have already been set up at Dawson Elementary School in Riverview, at a ranch in southern Hillsborough County, at the Bell Creek Preserve in Riverview and near a few strawberry fields.
The non-collapsible false burrows are placed in the ground and a mound of white sand is left outside for the owls to find out if they are hovering over them. If they are located in cattle pastures, a rectangular guard is placed around the burrow so that the cows can avoid stepping on them.
âWhat will save these owls is that they are very adaptable and will tolerate people if people tolerate them,â Reed says. In the Cape Coral area, there are successful burrows near a fire station and school. They have also been successful on airport runways.
âThere is a lot of promise because of their ability to acclimate and adapt to non-traditional habitat,â Schneider said. “In places like Cape Coral, owls live on wasteland, on non-native grasses.” Grasslands, pastures and farmland are all suitable, she says.
âBecause of the number of new builds, they’re really losing options faster than we can replace them,â Schneider says of burrowing owls.
A stewardship responsibility
There are other subspecies of burrowing owls across the continent, but Florida burrowing owls are endemic. âThey are a unique resource. They are not something you can find elsewhere, âwhich is why it is important to restore habitat for them.
âIt is a stewardship responsibility to preserve these endemic features of Florida and the region,â said Schneider. âThere is an ecological stunt with the loss of an animal. There are implications for other wildlife.
FWC often receives calls from affected people when they see bulldozers plowing territory known to burrowing owls, she said. âWhen a citizen notices an offense, he can call the dispatch number to send for an agent. It’s 888-404-3922.
Reed says Audubon is looking for more volunteers to help locate properties like George PIasecki’s ranch in Wimauma, where several burrows have been placed. âWe have a lot of potential places to put them,â but we need people to step up and donate their land, she says. Audubon also needs volunteers to help place the burrows.
âWe have nine more burrows ready to be built and we can build more,â Reed said. âWe are working with the Dorothy Thomas Girl Scout Campâ in Riverview in South Hillsborough and researching other sites.
To learn more, visit Tampa Audubon Society website. To become a volunteer, email Sandy Reed.