Fleas aren’t just annoying creepy-crawlies found on your dog or cat: they’re a parasite that can affect wild animals too—and they can be fatal.
Recently, two groups of burrowing owls were brought in to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park hospital to receive treatment for an infestation of a parasite commonly found in poultry, called a sticktight flea. The owls are part of a population that is being studied by San Diego Zoo Global and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We treated two families of burrowing owls that we brought in from the wild,” said Colleen Wisinski, conservation program specialist for San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (ICR). “We wanted to make sure these owls would survive this incident and, working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we decided to bring them in for treatment.”
The burrowing owls were being observed by ICR researchers who have been studying this local population since 2013. In recent weeks they noticed that the owls showed a visible infestation of the fleas, and believe at least one owl died as a result of the parasites.
"Burrowing owls are increasingly rare in San Diego County and the work being done to observe, learn about, and protect this population is important to maintaining the species in San Diego and throughout Southern California," said Mendel Stewart, field supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Carlsbad office.
While the birds were being cared for by the veterinary team at the Safari Park medical center, members of the ICR team worked with the Safari Park's pest management team to eliminate the fleas in the area where the owls live.
“We found that all of the birds had some degree of flea infestation, with two adults suffering from severe anemia,” said Lauren Howard, DVM, Associate Director of Veterinary Services, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “We are not just treating the owls for fleas; we are also looking at what might be underlying causes of this infestation.”
Although a couple of the owls were in critical condition when they arrived at the Safari Park, all the birds responded well to treatment and were released back into their homes just a few weeks later.
Read more about our burrowing owl conservation efforts.