The owls of our childhood are far from fierce beings. The Tootsie pop mascot and Hedwig the messenger may gain our affection, but they don’t necessarily inspire respect. These images tend to stick with us through adulthood, even after we’ve eyed their hooked talons and sifted through the fragile skeletons inside owl pellets. For some, it can be difficult to imagine that these wise storybook creatures are actually ferocious predators, born to eviscerate. Perhaps this is why I was so intrigued when I first heard about the so-called “the wild one” at the Wildhorse Golf Club in Davis, CA.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First of all, let us suppose that you, like me, have only a rudimentary knowledge of owl-ology. At the very least, we can assume that owls are nocturnal, tree-dwelling birds that prey on small rodents. Right?
Actually, the burrowing owl would beg to differ.
Standing a mere nine inches tall, the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypurgaea) is unique among raptors. This species inhabits abandoned burrows left by ground squirrels and other fossorial (digging) mammals, using them for nesting and shelter from predators. Although burrowing owls are often out and about during the day, the species is considered crepuscular, meaning that it is most active at dawn and dusk.
Perhaps one of the most impressive characteristics of this species is its ability to survive in intensely modified habitats, including landfills, golf courses, agricultural fields, and airports. In North Natomas, a suburb of Sacramento, burrowing owls can even be found inside storm drains in abandoned housing developments.
Despite their ability to live with us, burrowing owl populations in California have been declining steadily over the last several decades. In the San Francisco Bay area, for instance, population sizes have dropped by 28% since the early 1990s.
Fortunately, the 26-acre greenbelt surrounding the Wildhorse Golf Club supports a small but stable population of burrowing owls.
Which brings us back to the wild one.
An acquaintance had described this particular burrowing owl as such: “She basically erupts out of her burrow and attacks my dog every time we jog down this path.” It is worth mentioning that the dog in question is no Chihuahua.
My interest was piqued, so I headed to the Wildhorse Golf Club in North Davis. Timid cottontails scattered on the path in front of me, the edges of their ears illuminated by the setting sun. Small puffs of dust rose with every step as I scanned the hillsides for any sign of owls.
It didn’t take long to find her. Actually, I just followed the persistent sound of hissing and spitting (scroll down for my audio account of the trip).
What I found most intriguing, beyond her ferocity, was the fact that this burrowing owl wasn’t living in a burrow at all. She was living in a corrugated tin pipe tucked inside of a cinder block.
The construction of artificial burrows is becoming increasingly common as natural owl habitat, including grasslands and scrub-covered hillsides, is claimed for human use. In California, where the owl is listed as a “species of special concern,” housing projects, industrial development, and agriculture constitute a substantial threat to the species.
“The habitat needs of burrowing owls align almost exactly with ours,” says Bob Wilkerson, biologist at the Institute for Bird Populations. “In other words, they occur in flat, unforested areas, which happen to be some of the easiest places to develop.”
To help maintain habitat for the owls, non-profit groups, including the Burrowing Owl Preservation Society in Woodland, CA, are working to educate the public about the construction of artificial burrows.
One of the biggest challenges associated with artificial burrows is the lack of post-installation monitoring and maintenance.
“You can put in as many burrows as you want, but you won’t have any burrowing owls unless you keep the grass short,” says Catherine Portman, the executive director of the Preservation Society. “Developers install artificial burrows to reduce the impact of development on the owls, but no one checks to make sure they’re keeping the grass short. In the end, it’s not burrowing owl habitat at all.”
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Finding a balance between human and wildlife needs is not a new problem, but it is certainly here to stay. What once seemed to be a cornucopia of space and natural resources now appears fragile and exhaustible. The Wild Ones in Davis remind us that coexistence is possible, but that the road is far from easy. In fact, it is often filled with quite a bit of hissing and spitting.
My encounter with the burrowing owls of Wildhorse Golf Club