The Upper Nicola Band recently celebrated the release of critically endangered burrowing owls in their territory. On Sunday, April 10, 2016 six tiny, chubby, brown and white, yellow-eyed yearlings were released into burrows on the First Nation’s reserve near Merritt, BC. The burrows were built by First Nations technicians with the assistance of local biologist Chris Gill.
“It was a great opportunity to practice the stewardship of the land that is deeply ingrained in our people,” said Bernadette Manual, cultural heritage project manager for the First Nation. Manual said the community worked with Gill for nearly three years, surveying their eight reserves to find suitable grasslands for the project with the assistance of the Kamloops-based Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC. The society raised the six owls in captivity at a site in Kamloops in preparation for their release.
The charismatic burrowing owl is a culturally and ecologically important species for the Sylix (Okanagan) people. The owls were traditionally considered guardian spirits to the Sylix hunters and warriors and were sometimes considered spirit carriers to other worlds. These small birds of prey make their home in the grasslands of North America.
Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are social and inquisitive. They live and breed on the ground in underground burrows, usually the abandoned homes of marmots or badgers. The tiny birds of prey hunt small mammals and insects, but are vulnerable to larger predators such as coyotes or hawks. Gill said the loss and degradation of grassland habitat due to pesticide use in agriculture has led to a dramatic decrease in burrowing owl numbers across Canada.
Mike Macintosh, director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC, explains, “These small birds are part of the rich weaving of life in BC’s grasslands. They’re predators and prey, and they’re disappearing from Canada as a result of habitat loss and environmental threats. We’ve been learning what it takes to bring them back. It starts with conserving grassland habitats and with the work of people like members of the Upper Nicola Band and volunteers with the Conservation Society.”
The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society began a captive breeding program about 26 years ago. Mackintosh said the hope is that the owls will breed this spring before migrating south to Washington, Oregon, and California in the fall. Each spring, they return to mate and reproduce. The goal of the program is to boost the owl’s numbers high enough so they can breed and replenish their population naturally without human help. Last year, 65 burrowing owls were released and had offspring, totaling around 200 birds that were successfully raised in the wild.
Members of the Upper Nicola Band will monitor the mesh-covered burrow regularly to protect the young owls from predators and provide supplemental food until they are mature enough to fly and hunt on their own in the grasslands.