I was on a slow jog in the high desert of California. Subtle landscape. Sandy earth. I turned a corner along an agricultural field and two burrowing owls stood there on the ground—at the opening of their home—looking thoroughly annoyed. I, on the other hand, became enthralled.
That was 20 years ago. This weekend I found myself volunteering for the Global Owl Project's efforts in Central Oregon at "The Depot." Spotting this sticker? We knew we were in the right place.
I owe the whole thing to these two guys—my fabulous partner and his USFWS friend. They're old friends and have spent field seasons doing bird work together. Recently, at dinner (homemade pizza and apple pie), Mike mentioned burrowing owls and having volunteered before. I might have latched on to the concept. Just a little.
I bought an owl book and printed out conservation research papers to read on the weekends. Mike and Ken orchestrated a trek for the three of us. It involved (in addition to putting up with my excitement), an early morning road trip. And we met up with David Johnson, director of the Global Owl Project, longtime colleague of Mike, and the guy who owns that bumper sticker.
David's a world-respected owl expert. He topped off the coffee in his blue mug, unfurled a map, and showed us the plan for the day. He juggles a number of research projects, is undoubtedly low on sleep, but managed to make me feel like my curiosity and short-term weekend labor is an important contribution to his science. He has a soft voice, sunned skin, and stories to keep you riveted (as you haul buckets of rocks, a banding kit and shovel anywhere he tells you to).
We're at the US Army's Umatilla Weapons Depot. It's fenced, official. Pockmarked with hundreds of mogul-like mounds. Old bunkers. Established in the 1940s, the 17,000-acre Depot is one of four military sites around the country that once housed chemical weapons.
The bunkers are now empty, the chemical weapons (roughly 12% of the US stockpile) destroyed by 2011. Now it's a used for military training and is an expanse of dry grassland, abandoned of fear, with big open sky. Also? It's great habitat for burrowing owls.
This little one, above, is just 17 days old. Burrowing owl adults (below) are still small, stand just shy of a foot tall and weigh in at 6 ounces—like the weight of a baseball or a balled up pair of ski socks. They have long legs, bright yellow eyes, demanding eyebrows and brown/rust feathers dotted with white. And, I'd wager, an attitude.
They're active during the day, eating insects and small mammals, and live underground in burrows—left naturally from badgers, prairie dogs and others. The owls live in grasslands, desserts and open lands, with a range that extends from Canada to Mexico—migrating to wintering or breeding grounds each year. Don't let the range extent lull you into thinking it's big enough. Burrowing owl populations have plummeted, due to habitat destruction, prey base availability and other impacts. They're now federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Here at the Depot, if you look beyond the bunkers, the land's relatively untouched by development. But when David started in 2001, there were only 2-3 pairs of burrowing owls remaining. Why? A series of decisions on the land led to very few badgers. And badger burrows. And, hence, a decline in burrowing owls. But David believed that burrowing owls could thrive here. The test? He started a research project on site and began making his own burrows. If they had the right nesting sites, the owls would return, right? Then he monitored to see if he was right.
It was a good call. This year, there are 43 nesting pairs and 62 young have been banded. Which, by the way, is what we're up to. (I'd never banded before and it's always been on my list.)
In the June sun, the wildlife guys were nice enough to let me try banding the young, and I was guided by two environmental studies interns, bright young women here for summer research and experience.
We checked a series of burrows. Some were abandoned, the young likely not having survived. Others? Were full of fluffy young. These birds are banded at about 21 days old—old enough to fledge soon and hopefully survive. And legs big enough for the metal identification bands.
The bands are small ID tags, helping researchers around the world learn a little more about a particular bird's life story. I'm thankful to be there for the opening paragraph.
There's something pretty magical about working closely with wildlife. I'm someone who obsesses over tracks. Learns calls. And generally doesn't need to be holding wildlife to appreciate it. But when you're handed a young bird? Like the grumpy one you met 20 years ago? You can't help but smile, excitement welling in your insides, and extend armloads of gratitude to determined species and these generous people who make moments like this possible.
Little burrowing owls? I'm still your fan—even more so, if that's possible. And I'll continue to advocate for your protection, for healthy populations, for good science, and for the people everywhere who raise voices on behalf of our natural world.