Friday, July 12, 2013

Burrowing Owls: Sentries in Fields and Prairie Dog Towns

Study the eyes of this Burrowing Owl. So watchful and attentive. © SB
Okay, maybe I do have a true favourite among grasslands birds: The Burrowing Owl.

We saw at least three pairs of Burrowing Owls — two nesting in Grasslands National Park, and one not far from the park on the Prairie Passages Tour of Saskatchewan pastures and grasslands earlier this summer.

I love the way they stand guard over the area around their burrows, whether in the middle of a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, or on fence posts in the park and along nearby roads.

So small. So serious. And, in Saskatchewan, so endangered.

Once again, the habitat they need is being lost, along with vital companion species, including the gophers and prairie dogs that dig the burrows they use.

(I recently finished Rock Creek, a beautiful memoir based in Southern Saskatchewan. In it, poet Thelma Poirier says: "Burrowing owls. A misnomer. More fittingly they could be called borrowing owls'. They borrow the burrows of ground squirrels." Indeed.)

Close-up of a Burrowing Owl,
standing guard over its nearby burrow. 
© SB

As an example of their declining numbers, the website for the Burrowing Owl Interpretive Centre in Moose Jaw, SK, says that the population trend for Burrowing Owls around Regina, SK, in the last ten years "points straight down." The site continues:
Agricultural crops don't provide the habitat that burrowing owls require, so the owls are restricted to the small fragments of prairie that remain as cattle pastures. In much of southern Saskatchewan, these small cattle pastures are the last remaining refuge for burrowing owls. The horses and cattle are beneficial to the owls, as they keep the grass short by grazing and provide nest-lining material (manure!) for the owls.
So what a treat, to see these owls near Val Marie!

Wider shot:  Burrowing Owls are another Prairie Dog town resident.
The nesting burrow must have been nearby, 

as we saw a pair of owls here. © SB

What are these birds? Burrowing Owls.
Location: In and near Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, Saskatchewan. 
Photo date:  July 25, 2013.

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