Solving the Mystery of the Disappearing Burrowing Owl
Thunder Basin Donation Closes Critical Research Gap on Rare Bird
Burrowing owl populations are plummeting in many areas across the West while in other places, they are doing just fine—and no one knows exactly why.
Biologist Courtney Conway is leading an effort to find out if the owls’ migration is the key. He is working to track the owls by using small solar-powered satellite transmitters that fit like tiny backpacks on the birds.
While burrowing owls are small, the project to track them is massive, spanning eight years and the entire Western half of North America. Conway’s goal is to put as many transmitters on owls as possible. But to do that, first he has to find the right hole in the ground. Burrowing owls nest in holes dug by other animals like prairie dogs.
Over the years, Conway, U of I Ph.D. student Carl Lundblad and their collaborators managed to place transmitters on burrowing owls in all western Canadian provinces and US states that still support reasonable numbers of migratory owls except one: Wyoming. Initial grant funding had run out, but his colleagues at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department connected Conway with the Thunder Basin Coal Company.
“Wyoming is in the middle of the owl’s breeding distribution, and it would have been a shame to have this big void in the research,”Courtney Conway, Research Professor, Leader, Idaho Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit
“We are always looking for projects that enhance our reclamation efforts and benefit species, like the burrowing owl,” said Lecia Craft, environmental supervisor for the Thunder Basin Coal Company. “What’s exciting about this project is it gave us the chance to do something outside of the box.”
To date, the company has donated more than $100,000 to support Conway’s research, allowing him to purchase the transmitters as well as satellite time to track the owls on their migration routes.
“Wyoming is in the middle of the owl’s breeding distribution, and it would have been a shame to have this big void in the research,” Conway said. “Without the funding from Thunder Basin, we would have had to complete this project with a hole in the middle of the species range.”
Conway is in the process of placing 10 satellite transmitters on owls who nest in Wyoming. Andrea Orabona of Wyoming Game and Fish Department provides logistical support and on-the-ground knowledge of where to find the owls—key details since the state is so large, and the owls so rare.
So far, the researchers have learned some owls migrate to parts of California, and northern and central Mexico. As more information is collected, Conway hopes to discover whether the owls’ winter homes are impacting their population success.
Article by Sara Zaske, College of Natural Resources
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue of Celebrating Natural Resources