By Sharon Wootton Special to The Herald
Inside the hole, an unseen force was tossing the dirt out through the opening in the ground.
A burrowing owl was doing some housekeeping in its Eastern Washington home.
The round-headed white and brown owls are 8- to 10-inches tall with long legs.
They are the only raptors to nest underground, usually at the ends of 6- to 10-foot tunnels.
State wildlife biologist Sara Gregory has been studying the owls in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the nonprofit Global Owl Project (www.globalowlproject.com).
Burrowing owls are a state species of concern, but if the population continues to slide, it could become threatened or endangered, depending on population trends. The decline is occurring all across its range in North America.
“It’s not in dire straits but with rapid habitat conversion (to farming) there is concern for shrub-steppe-associated species,” Gregory said.
“Ecologically, now is the time to take a hard look at what we have left in a patchwork habitat that we’ve created, and make some decisions what to save and what to let go under the tiller.
“It’s a pivotal time right now for all shrub-steppe animals,” Gregory said.
Burrowing owls don’t build nesting sites from scratch but use burrows dug by other animals, including coyotes and badgers.
“They do some housekeeping but we don’t know how extensive their abilities are. They’re an interesting ecological link to the landscape,” she said.
While they eat mostly insects, the owls also prey on small mammals and birds.
In an effort to stop their numbers from declining, artificial burrows are being put in place in natural habitat.
“It seems that what’s going on outside the burrows is important, too. If the grass is too tall, they won’t use it because they can’t see (danger). They’d rather have a sightline,” Gregory said.
Burrowing owls are fairly vulnerable to pesticides used in farming, or they can be hit by cars (one was hit by train) when they nest alongside a highway.
Coyotes, badgers and hawks feed on burrowing owls. And the poisoning of small animals in fields can lead to death too.
Most burrowing owls migrate south each winter and then return mid-February to late March to breed in the warm, dry climate.
Females arrive a little later than males. Many will return to the same area, sometimes the same burrow.
The number of owlets may depend on the abundance of food.
While eagles and orcas have a following dedicated to their preservation, burrowing owls fall into the cute category, but relatively few people know about them.
“There is a case to be made, or a sales pitch to be developed, around burrowing owls. Once you look in the face of an owl, it’s kind of mesmerizing. They’re a very endearing charismatic animal … definitely potential to get people interested in them,” Gregory said.
To watch burrowing owls, check out wdfw.wa.gov/wildwatch.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.