The burrowing owl has become largely non-existent in Manitoba since the 1980s, but one program is changing that.
In 2010, then post-graduate student Alexandra Froese began a research project aimed at reintroducing the species, spending three seasons in the field and eventually gaining support from the Turtle Mountain Conservation District in 2011. In 2013, the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program, as it is known today, was formed and has since released 80 birds onto specifically chosen release sites in western Manitoba.
“We’re looking for grazed pasture land and short-cut hay land generally, and it needs to be open,” Froese, now the manager of the program, said. “There needs to be hardly any trees, no shrubs and we also look for populations of ground squirrels or existing burrows from populations of ground squirrels.”
Burrowing owls are unable to dig their own burrows and rely on abandoned dens from other animals for their nests, the recovery program’s website states.
The program, operated in conjunction with the Assiniboine Park Zoo, echoes a similar initiative introduced in British Columbia in the early ’90s.
From 1992 to 2012, 1,169 captive-born birds were released from the B.C. Wildlife Park and Port Kells sites, while the program banded 1,391 wild-born juveniles, according to the 2012 Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C. newsletter.
In 2014, the B.C. program expanded to the Upper Nicola Band Douglas Lake Reserve and, in 2016, three pairs of burrowing owls were released onto reserve land.
This year, the Manitoba program plans to release seven breeding pairs at three sites near Broomhill and Coulter, Man.
Like the B.C. program, Froese and her staff bury artificial, predator-resistant, burrows at each site, which are later left in the field for future owl use.
Pairs are enclosed until nests are built, at which point owls and several of their young are released.
By October, successfully reintegrated owls will have migrated south to the Gulf of Mexico. Staff make one last round of the nest sites, and any birds that failed to migrate are recaptured and taken back to the Assiniboine Park Zoo.
That has happened only three times in the eight years of the program, Froese said.
But while the owls are successfully migrating, their final location is still a mystery. The program has confirmed only one captive-born owl that has returned to the province, although Froese says others may still be in the general area.
“We don’t know exactly where they’re going and, because they don’t necessarily respect international and provincial borders, they could be elsewhere,” she said. “They could be in North Dakota. They could be in Saskatchewan.”
According to the program’s website, owls are banded with province-specific identification to assist in tracking but, “Data on survival rates for both adults and juveniles during migration does not exist and (data for) migratory routes used and winter range for Canadian owls is limited.”
Froese hopes new satellite trackers will allow her to solve the mystery, but more funding will be required, as each tracker costs about $6,000.
“Out of 100 owls, you would want one to return,” she said. “That would be a goal and we’ve already got that.”
The much larger B.C. program released 67 owls in 2015 from 12 sites and saw over 50 return from previous years — the third time the number of return owls has climbed above 20, according to the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C.
With most of what was once burrowing owl range in Manitoba now put to agriculture, the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program is reliant on landowner support.
Artificial burrows can be cut over, Froese said, but farmers are asked to give any occupied burrows a wide berth when operating machinery, something that may make signing on with the program a hard sell for some producers.
“It is a voluntary handshake agreement,” Froese said. “I mean, we would encourage a landowner to keep the land how it is, but that’s not up to us. That’s their livelihood and we understand that, but with most people, we haven’t had any issue or changes to land use where we’ve put in artificial nest burrows.”
Froese often presents the program to producers as a means to improve land management and increase biodiversity.
“Losing a small species or a large species affects the balance in an ecosystem, so there are benefits in having all species remain in the Manitoba Prairies,” she said.
Moisture has proven to be another challenge as five out of the last eight years have seen high precipitation on potential release sites, a hazard for underground burrows.
“We haven’t increased it, but it’s hanging on,” Froese said of Manitoba’s burrowing owl population. “Some people, and even some maps if you Google online, ‘burrowing owl range in Canada,’ it doesn’t even show Manitoba anymore because for a period of time, 2000-05, there were no owls detected.”
Since 2006, the program has noted a small number of wild owls return to the province, including eight wild pairs and 18 individual owls during the breeding season between 2009-16.