Did you know that Arizona and the wide open lands of the Phoenix Valley in particular are home to burrowing owls, owls that nest and live in underground burrows? Burrowing owls were once the most populous kind of owl in the continental United States but now are in jeopardy. Their numbers are declining throughout their range and so they are classified as a "species of concern." As more open desert and farmland is developed and built on for human activity, burrowing owl habitats are destroyed. Today, the burrowing owl population is about 1 percent of what it was in the United States 150 years ago.
But thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the work of conservationists and involved community volunteers, adult burrowing owls and their young are being removed from building sites before excavation and then relocated in human-made habitats that mimic the burrows of their preferred builders: prairie dogs.
College of Integrative Sciences faculty, students, staff, alumni and community volunteers have partnered with Wild at Heart raptor rescue to build, monitor and maintain burrowing owl habitats at ASU Polytechnic campus and introduce owl pairs who are in need of rehoming.
How does relocation work?
Burrowing owls who have lost their natural homes in one part of the Valley are rescued by Wild at Heart and monitored for a month in aviaries before being translocated to another location across the Valley (so they don't try to return to their original, now-unsafe location). They are placed as breeding pairs in a burrow habitat that offers them a choice of tunnels and burrows to make their own and that gives them options to hide from their natural predators, such as great horned owls, Cooper's hawks, red-tailed hawks, and other large raptors.
For the first month of translocation, the owls are tented with cattle shade-cloth above one burrow while they adapt to their new surroundings. They can see out and enjoy free-flowing air. They are fed, watered and monitored daily to make sure they are adjusting well to their new habitat and begin to feel at home. After a month, the shade-cloth is removed and feeding continues for another week to supplement the owl's diet as they begin foraging on their own and as nestlings are born.
Ultimately, it is up to the owls to decide if they want to keep this new habitat as their permanent home or look elsewhere. About one-third of burrowing owls choose to remain in these new homes. Wildlife biologists are continuing to study and assess these habitats to try to determine why that number isn't higher or to learn what environmental factors contribute to a preferred habitat.
ASU students and faculty are studying the daily life of these sociable owls, in efforts to contribute to greater knowledge about how humans can help this species survive. They are also working to add elements to the habitat area that provide natural sources for nourishment, such as drought-tolerant plants that draw insect life.
Read the ASU News stories about the Burrowing Owl Conservation Project:
Move-in day for burrowing owls at ASU Polytechnic campus
One of four burrowing owls relocated by Wild at Heart at ASU Polytechnic campus in May 2021. (Photo by Heather Bateman)
Learn more from Team Owl
Faculty of Science and Mathematics
College of Integrative Sciences and Arts
ASU Polytechnic campus