Sunday, February 8, 2009

Prairie Dogs and Burrowing Owls

The burrowing owl is an interesting bird, nesting in the burrows of ground dwelling mammals like prairie dogs. The Rolling Plains Texas Master Naturalists are looking for prairie dog colonies to survey this year. As part of that process, they will also be looking for burrowing owls and birds of prey, especially Swainson's hawks.

Some chapter members went out to scout for prairie dog colonies--one of them is on a breeding bird survey route I run each year. In discussions with the owner, they are planning to plow up the field where the prairie dogs live, which will also prevent the burrowing owls from nesting. The prairie dog colony has expanded a little into the neighboring property--I hope that owner is willing to let them stay. A lot of property owners don't care to have prairie dogs on their property, but as a keystone species, the prairie dogs are so important to populations of other animals. It is true they can use other animal burrows (skunks, armadillos, and badgers, for example), I must say I have never seen a burrowing owl anywhere but near a prairie dog colony in this area. I did read in Birds of North America Online that experiments with artificial nesting boxes have been successful. The article also indicates breeding bird surveys from 1980 - 1989 showed a dramatic decline in areas of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. There was some increase in Arizona. I am surprised the information was not more current.

Hopefully the census information the Master Naturalists gather will help preserve prairie dogs, and by extension, burrowing owls.

Good birding!


Jim Miller said...

Annie & I were out at Lake Arrowhead Sunday, the day after the chapter's PD survey. Most of our time was spent watching a hawk fight the strong south wind as it hunted over the grassland. The only marking I noted was a wide white band across the dorsal base of the tail, and the bird did not appear to be as big as our red tails. Could it have been a swainson's?

Penny Miller said...

It sounds more like a northern harrier. The white patch is very distinctive. Hopefully, your field guide will have a picture of the bird in flight.