By Sunshine Jowell
On my first birding adventure to Floyd Lamb Park, I was immediately struck by the diversity of the habitat and the birds who lived there. Upon entering the park, you’re greeted in the parking lot with dozens of Canadian Geese families, who roam the park day and night. They nap on the grass, swim the water, and fly above. They make a wonderful noise, and will sometimes follow you around if they find you at all curious. Most of them don’t. We’re just visitors to their homes.
All kinds of ducks, mallards, and coots swim in the ponds and lakes. They also ignore most of the humans fishing nearby, following the lead of other species walking the shore and sitting in trees. Cormorants, herons, woodpeckers. I cataloged on that first trip more species than I had on any other.
Toward the end, we were asked if anyone was interested in walking out through the desert to see some owls. I can never resist an owl, so I trudged on in the dust and we came to a stop some ways behind a fence. Out came the scopes, and soon they were located.
Burrowing Owls—those tiny, rock-disguised creatures who sit outside on the porch with looks of slight confusion and possible disdain. It took me a while to see one—my vision is poor, and they’re quite clever in their disguises. But soon a small family appeared outside their burrow in the desert.
What I didn’t know back then was that we’re lucky enough to have over 20 pairs of breeding Burrowing Owls throughout the Las Vegas Valley. Scattered throughout public and private land, they survive precariously in natural and man-made artificial burrows, as well as abandoned desert tortoise burrows, within and on the outskirts of our city. Those who migrate always come back to their same homes—they’re quite particular that way. But aren’t we all?
I had the opportunity to talk with Christiana Manville from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the work she’s doing to implement partners and volunteers from the community, to map and monitor the owls, as
well as teaching citizens about how to collect scientific data and promote bird conservation.
“Probably the biggest threat [to Burrowing Owls] is climate change,” she said. “I saw a lot of birds in my yard for the first time.”
Due to the drought and drier conditions here in the west, more animals are finding their way to suburban areas for water and food (mostly insects). However, the Burrowing Owls—with their small underground nests, and tiny stature—are not always seen or noticed by the humans that share this part of Nevada.
“Burrowing Owls might be attracted to these areas because there’s higher food density,” she went on. “but then there are also new threats.”
Burrowing Owls also fly low to the ground, at the same level as cars, who often don’t see them until it’s too late. And, they face many predators—such as hawks and other larger owls.
“When they’re disturbed during the daytime,” she said. “they can be picked off by hawks. Dogs and cats are a more suburban threat.”
Loss of land, and people, are an enormous threat to the owls. Since most owls become attached to their burrows, but also migrate for food, they often come home to find their favorite places now in the middle of construction sites. The burrows are often unseen, and many times get demolished by trucks and large equipment.
Photos by Cathy Kosmary
The most important aspect of the project is creating artificial burrows in safe spaces—such as the areas on private land around Gilcrease Orchard, the Rainbow Owl Preserve, Floyd Lamb Park, and many others. The owls tend to replenish these often, with pairs often fledging up to three chicks a year.
Volunteer work includes fencing to secure these areas from damage, ATVs, and trash dumping. The burrows are often small and unnoticeable. Unfortunately, BB gun pellets have also been found around burrows, as people have chosen to use the owls as target practice.
Monitoring happens during the summer, with volunteers observing their assigned burrows at dawn and dusk each week. These are exciting and anticipated activities, with many of the same folks looking after the same burrows each year. This is an important part of environmental education, which can help to mitigate local development in our coveted parks and other beautiful pieces of nature in the city.
Christiana is also working with youth groups and local area schools to help educate them about the Burrowing Owls. A program called Get Outdoors Nevada has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife project to offer micro-grants in order to bus groups of kids out to the Rainbow Owl Preserve and other natural areas to spend the day observing owls, planting, picking trash and weeds, and installing new artificial burrows.
Though they’re easy to see and observe, they are a part of nature. They essentially have the same needs as we do. They need food, shelter, and habitat. Christiana encourages people to respect the birds.
“If you know where some owls are in a burrow,” she asks. “don’t walk up to the burrow and scare them. Keep your distance. Observe them from a safe distance.”
She also wants us to think more about the trash we throw out, and how this can find its way through a wind storm to block the entrance to a burrow. Anything we throw out our doors can find a way to their homes.
With the breeding season beginning in March and lasting through August, now is a good time to see the males display flight, present food to females, and hear their distinctive primary call—a two-note “coo coooo”. The juvenile birds will begin to emerge at around two weeks of age when they can hop, flap their wings, and preen themselves. Females are similar in size to males and tend to crouch a little lower to the ground when outside the burrow. It is important to stay at least 300 feet away from the birds in order to not disturb them.
Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with Red Rock Audubon in 2008, volunteer efforts from members have helped to construct, install, and monitor artificial burrows. Between 2011 and 2015 alone, breeding owl pairs increased from 4 to 17 couples. The study has determined that it can be appropriate to install burrows on protected land, but only if human activities can be limited.
Photos by Jennifer Dudek