A burrowing owl pauses among the rocks and shrub to look around

Share This

Burrowing Owl Conservation

Saving Species in San Diego County

San Diego Zoo Global’s researchers and scientists scout through humid jungles and across arid savannas, saving endangered wildlife in faraway places. But did you know that we also have talented teams saving plants and animals right here in San Diego County?

Biodiversity Hotspots

There are 36 biodiversity hotspots around the world. Biodiversity hotspots are Earth’s most biologically rich, yet threatened, regions. To qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, a region must meet two strict criteria:

  1. It must have at least 1,500 native plants which are found nowhere else on the planet.
  2. It must have lost at least 70% of its natural vegetation.

Home to hundreds of rare plant and animal species that are found only in Southern California, San Diego County is considered a biodiversity hotspot.

A burrowing owl perches atop a chain link fence

Less than a foot tall and weighing about as much as a softball, burrowing owls are among the smallest owl species, but they're fierce hunters.

Large Problems for Small Birds

One of our local conservation projects focuses on the western burrowing owl, a government-recognized Species of Special Concern and one of the smallest owls in North America. Weighing 7 ounces—about as much as a softball—and standing only 10 inches tall, these diminutive birds are fierce predators, preying on insects, lizards, frogs, and small mammals, like mice.

As their name implies, burrowing owls are ground-based birds. They do fly, and can even catch insects in midair, but they live in underground burrows. They don’t dig their own homes, though—they move into abandoned ground squirrel burrows. The extermination of ground squirrels, which are often considered pests, has a direct effect on burrowing owls. If the squirrels don’t dig burrows, the owls don’t have homes.

Before our team started studying burrowing owls in Otay Mesa in 2011, everyone assumed that if adult owls couldn’t find enough food for their chicks near their burrows, they would fly to better hunting areas. Using trail cameras (motion-activated digital cameras) and GPS, we determined that this is not the case—burrowing owls actually stay close to home when hunting, even if they aren’t having much success. This validates the importance of habitat conservation that includes good burrow sites and good hunting grounds.

Left: a burrowing owl stands atop a mound of rocks and dirt. Right: a burrowing owl rests in the green grass.

Burrowing owls thrive in open land with short grass, where they live in abandoned ground squirrel burrows.

Long-Term Solutions for Pint-Sized Owls

The burrowing owl is disappearing from parts of its widespread range across the U.S., but we have created plans and partnerships to ensure that owl families can survive and thrive in San Diego. Since we began the Burrowing Owl Conservation Program, we’ve learned how the lively birds pair, build nests within a burrow, protect chicks from predators, and hunt for food.

We’ve used this information to create a comprehensive strategy to protect these charming owls from extinction:

  • San Diego Zoo Global partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to identify and restore prime burrowing owl habitat—open land with short grass—and protect areas that haven’t yet been developed. Then we reintroduce burrowing owls and ground squirrels into those landscapes.
     
  • We work with building developers and land planning agencies to relocate owl populations to protected areas before new construction starts. If a suitable habitat is not immediately available, we take the birds to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where we care for them in a behind-the-scenes area until they can be safely released. If an owl pair produces offspring while in our care, we monitor the eggs, and later, the chicks. Each chick receives a vaccination against West Nile Virus, an illness that can be fatal for birds. When young owls are old enough to survive on their own, they’re released into protected areas.
     
  • The Burrowing Owl Recovery Program team monitors the few wild populations of burrowing owls in San Diego County. If the owls encounter a serious setback, like a flea infestation, we step in to help.
A trail camera photo of burrowing owl chicks huddled outside their burrow

Trail camera photos, like this one, help our teams understand how burrowing owls nest, care for their chicks, and hunt for food.

Citizen Scientists Wanted

The western burrowing owl is at risk of extinction in San Diego County, but our Burrowing Owl Recovery Program is helping these bright-eyed birds bounce back. Our teams are working with land management agencies to re-engineer open spaces so the feisty, feathered hunters can nest and find food. To track the results of the landscape restorations, our researchers placed trail cameras outside owl burrows.

The cameras have taken hundreds of photos that need to be sorted. That’s where you come in! Simply review the images and log what you see. Record how many animals are shown, what species they are (you'll see more than burrowing owls), and what they’re doing. It’s fun and easy, and you’ll be playing a vital role in conserving a charismatic local species. Burrow in at wildwatchburrowingowl.org.