Knock, Knock: Who’s There? Meet The Owls Burrowed Beneath Phoenix

By Annika Cline
Published: Monday, August 29, 2016 - 5:05pm
Updated: Monday, August 29, 2016 - 5:07pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
A burrowing owl is perched near its artificial home in South Phoenix.
(Photo by Steve Prager, courtesy of Audubon Arizona)
A burrowing owl sits with its owlets at the entrance to a burrow in South Phoenix.

The western burrowing owl is a federally protected bird found from Canada down to South America. It’s protected because the population is dwindling.

Development affects their nesting habitat, and as more human homes are built, burrowing owl homes are lost. But some owls are flocking to new digs in South Phoenix.

Despite their name, burrowing owls don’t actually do the digging.

“They rely on other animals to make the burrows and then they’ll move into them. And one of the issues with the owls is that those burrowing mammals are disappearing,” said Cathy Wise with Audubon Arizona.

Think of squirrels, foxes or prairie dogs as the home builders, and the owls as the tenants. As Wise points out, those builders are disappearing, leaving the burrowing owl with fewer options. So Audubon Arizona became a builder instead.

“The burrows themselves are about four feet deep,” she said.

We visited some on a trail in the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area. We walked up to black tubes sticking a couple inches out of the dirt. 

“So it’s flexible irrigation tubing, corrugated. And that is nice for the owls because they can just walk up it really easily, even the babies,” Wise said.

The tubes connect to 5-gallon buckets underground, which create the burrow. A burrowing owl is perched on a nearby branch eyeing its visitors, but we don’t seem to ruffle its feathers.

“They’ll chatter at you. More so in the springtime when they’re breeding,” Wise said.

The Downtown Owls project started in 2013, and since then volunteers have built more than 250 burrows in this area. And they’ve relocated about a hundred rescue owls to Rio Salado. 

“We go out and we find the burrowing owls that are in trouble, usually at a housing development, and we trap those owls in a safe way and we bring them back to the care facility,” said Greg Clark, who is with Wild at Heart, an organization that rescues and cares for birds of prey.

Then Clark looks for good properties to build artificial burrows. But it’s a tough sell to a lot of landowners to give up part of their property for what’s essentially an owl apartment complex.

“So it might take me two or three years to find a farmer who really likes burrowing owls, wants to do something for wildlife, and happens to be in the right spot,” Clark said. 

He said this site at Rio Salado is one of the most successful sites he’s been involved with. And it’s a little ironic when you consider the area’s history.

“Right now where we’re standing is a landfill. We’re standing on top,” said Winston Lyons, a ranger with the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.

Yes, the Rio Salado habitat used to be a literal dump. 

“Tires, copper, lead, refrigerators,” Lyons said.

The 5-mile habitat along the river was restored in the 90s, and the owl homes have been one more step in that transformation. There are still industrial buildings across the riverbed, and planes fly overhead, but Lyons said maintaining wild habitats in an urban setting helps connect people to the natural world. 

“It’s an environment for learning; educating the next set of rangers that will come and take my spot,” he said.

Wise said more than a thousand community members helped with the project so far.

“And in fact about 40 percent of our volunteers didn’t know that there even was such a thing as a burrowing owl, or that they were in Arizona,” she said.

Now they’re building the burrows, and even collecting data about them. Wise said volunteers use an app to note observations about the burrows when they walk by them.

“It’s been very exciting for us to see that all the sites have been occupied,” she said. “That’s really the most important thing.”

She said their next step is to put colored bands on the birds, so people can track the activity of individual owls.

“We’re not sure if it’s the same pair at a given site, or if the birds are moving from site to site. There’s a lot of unanswered questions,” Wise said.

Answering them will help the Downtown Owls project find better ways to build burrows, and make sure the birds call this place home for generations.

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