This is the only field job that I can say I’ve ever held a lap full of baby burrowing owlets.
How does one happen to find oneself in such a predicament?
It was 2007 and I had applied to a field position nest searching, trapping and banding burrowing owls across the western United States, carrying on research on population trends at varying latitudes in relation to range and migration. This would be my first time working with raptors though, as you might be able to tell from the above photo, neither these little guys nor their parents are very intimidating (don’t tell them I told you that).
Somewhere along the way before the job started I was informed that I’d need that driver’s license that I’d been successful at putting off getting for the past seven years (I was 23 at the time). I was forced to finally take the dreaded driver’s test in preparation for the job, seeing that the position called for solo road trips throughout Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah and Idaho.
The project was run under Vicki Garcia of the University of Arizona where a great deal of research on this western species of raptor comes from thanks to efforts like hers and those of principle investigator Courtney J. Conway. Adding to another year of their long-term burrowing owl field study, we continued that summer to monitor their production and put bands on the birds to be identifiable in following years. Geographical range was of interest in recent research because populations were encountering differences in food availability which may lead to changes in their migratory patterns and how development and agriculture may impact that.
We first arrived to the job at “basecamp” in Tucson, Arizona which is where the university is located. The team was made up of three of us: Megan, Lance and me. Vicki drove us out across the shrubby landscape of Tucson to give us our first introduction of this jaunty, intense little owl set atop stilt legs.
For those of you who don’t live in a desert, like I never had, I never learned what a wash is. It is is a big cement canal that runs at (presumably) strategic locations around the city for when the flood rains come so as to avoid flooding. Like ephemeral rivers: dry for the entire year until the monsoon strikes. But when the washes are dry, wildlife takes advantage. In addition to coyotes loping along the dry concrete bed, there are plenty of small rodents and insects that occupy the dirt slopes peppered with vegetation. And where there’s prey there’s the coinciding predator: the burrowing owl.
It took me a moment to discern the marbled brown and white plumage against the sloping earth of the wash. A second shape appeared next to it, a pair. The two owls stood by their burrow, just as entirely aware of us as we were of them. But, meanwhile, the city went about its business. A busy street filled with lanes of backed up traffic and blaring horns, pedestrians hurrying down the sidewalk where we stood at the lip of the wash, staring across at the little raptors on stilt legs, yellow eyes fixed on us.
They took short flights between the precipice and the burrow entrance, their silent wings flapping softly like moths. They hunted for grasshoppers, mice and kangaroo rats as the sun went down and we learned how we’d be capturing these birds for the next three months to contribute to a growing wealth of knowledge about these fascinating and beautiful birds and how they’re being affected by human development and agriculture.
After a couple week of training in a group, I was handed the keys to my own mode of travel from now on: an enormous Ford Bronco, my boxy white army tank of a field vehicle. In the back I had sufficient box traps and bow nets for the summer of owling that was ahead of me. Having spent time with my coworkers while we were still getting the hang of things, we three travelled together to air force bases in California, trapping and banding owls and then went our three separate ways to cover sites in Colorado, Idaho and Utah. Now solo, I was let loose to take care of the field sites in Colorado as my territory.
The project had an agreement with military and air force bases that we’d do our fieldwork on their lands, seeing as how many of these sites were perfectly suited for the kind of habitat burrowing owls require: wide open grasslands with scattered sagebrush along with plenty of grasshoppers and mice for the feasting. Most of these locations were huge open expanses of land that were reserved as training grounds. While much of this, in a way, was removed from humans, we also found ourselves trapping owls burrowing on the grass median between fighter jet landing and takeoff strips. We wore ear protection, but who knows if the owls could hear anything at all! They didn’t seem bothered.
In addition to giving our identities so freely to the armed forces of the United States just to walk around and study birds, we also were given, at every base, the obligatory rundown of the threat of unexploded ordinances still scattered who knows how haphazardly out across the land. The duds..or so I hoped. I remember my body turned to instant ice one night when I was walking around the desert looking for owls and my leg snagged on a wire. The taut line trailed from my leg to beneath the earth attached to who knows what. I slooooowly let the tension loose expecting this moment to be my last. And yet here I am.
Pinion Canyon, some 2mil acres.
Once on my own, just my mostrous, trusty Bronco and I, I travelled up and down Colorado’s Rt.25 over the next couple months to visit Fort Carson Air Force Base, Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Pinion Canyon Manuever Site a couple of times each across the months that made up the owls’ nesting season. This way we could trap the parents early and return later when the chicks are hatched and grown enough to be processed and banded. Our goal at each new station was to find owl nests, relocate those knowns from previous years that are currently active, trap birds, band them, take blood and feather samples, measure wing chord and tarsis and observe for mites, deformities or injuries.
Work begins as evening falls and, once owl nesting locations have been determined earlier in the day, traps are laid. Capture methods for male and female burrowing owls are different in that the more submissive female tends to retreat back into the safety of her burrow when approached while the male chooses to fly away and stand nearby, irritated. For the female, we set a rectangular box made of chicken wire and covered in burlap with inward-swinging one-way doors on each end. Setting one end against the burrow hole, you secure it with burlap cushioning so the hole is entirely blocked. The female inside the burrow will eventually attempt to leave the burrow after you move off a bit and will find the trap at the entrance. She can push through the hinged one-way door and not be able to emerge out of the opposite end since it can only swing inward. Here is where I stick my arms in this opposite door and gather my bird(s).
We’re always careful not to leave the birds in the traps too long and therefore only set a few traps at a time at nests close enough to each other to check frequently. I recall at Fort Carson I had my best catch: all seven fledgling birds, along with their protective mother had retreated into the hole when they saw me coming with the box trap. I gave it hardly any time at all before checking with a flashlight only to see more than a dozen yellow eyes peering back at me from the confines of the burlap trap. Mother and all! Luckily I’d been training the Bio crew there how to do owl work that they’ll continue to do into the future, so they can tell you it’s for real. I still think it’s hilarious that they were all so stunned at the world outside of the burrow that they just stood quietly in my lap, looking curiously in every direction, feathery fluff balls.
For the male owls, you’ve got to convince him to come back around after you’ve made your presence known and he’s certainly not hiding in the burrow to protect whatever children. What draws this predator back to the area is its prey. And we offer it in a wire box: a mouse or gerbil. The box protects the rodent from injury and, when the bird lands on it, a trip wire that is attached to the cage looses a pin that instantly springs open a wire bow net overtop of the bird as it stands on it’s prey. It’s harder to succeed at but even more satisfying than the box trap when you get one.
It also means I got to have gerbils as best friends for the summer! We found that mice tended to not do as well as the more hardy gerbil. Unfortunately the little guys don’t hold up well under seemingly near-death situations. Yes, we’re horrible people. So I went for gerbils instead! I made friends with a Biologist at Fort Carson who let me let them out in his living room. He came up with the names: Thunder for the yellow one and Lightening for the brown one with the streak across its forehead.
Most of the work involved working out in the middle of what seemed nowhere sometimes, but, for a field job, the room and board was pretty cush. We each had our own food allowance and lived from hotel room to hotel room. I’d sneak my gerbils on the fancy loading cart, the cage under the drape of a pillow, rolling by the concierge toward the elevator. They kept me company over the summer, and through many a long night. We worked together in the endeavor to capture owls. We spent late nights together, just the three of us and the owls. And when we’d get home at three o’clock, to yet another quiet hotel room, I’d let them out in the bathtub to run around a bit before I collapsed until early afternoon.
While the places I worked were on service lands, I certainly did feel like I was pretty well out in the wild on the job, for instance the evening that involved war against canine: running after and screaming at coyotes that were just a stone’s throw away and warily-yet-brazenly approaching the box traps I’d just set. They were recognizing what I was doing and thought they could attempt a free meal in the form of a momma owl. Another time I had a face to face with a badger that stood on it’s hind legs and, I sh*t you not, started dancing to the sun gods, paws raised high, body upright and writhing.
I wasn’t quite sure what to think of that.
There was always the possibility of a cougar but I never was lucky enough. I did however finally see my first bobcat (and sighed as it ran across my Bronco’s headlights down the dark dirt road, hoping I wouldn’t have to run it off of any of my traps). As far as smaller life on the land, the grasshopper and beetles were fat and plentiful and the owls made a good living off of them. You can sometimes see the proof when you come across a burrow that has been decorated with the shimmering exoskeleton of the creature that once was: legs, wings and carapaces scattered artfully around a hole in the dirt, perhaps a sign to females that this male promises to feed her well if she agrees to share his hole.
But really, the birds are absolutely charming, fascinating, charismatic and simply gorgeous. Having a burrowing owl in the hand where you can observe the beauty of its dappled feathers and the softness of this small fierce predator. The glow of those eyes, even in the middle of the night, is staggering. They’re not apt to bite and they don’t clutch you too painfully with their claws although sometimes they hit you in the sweet spot of a nailbed. And I’m pretty sure that, as with every bird I let go over the course of that summer, they all know my face by heart as I’ve determined based on the soul-wrenching look they give me just before I let them go.
I picture this face sometimes, just before I’m about to fall asleep…
But watching them in the evenings, you can see a silhouette of the silent hunters with their powdery moth wings, hovering above the ground staring intently until softly dropping onto its quarry. If you ever get to Tucson, keep your eye out because you can guarantee they’ve already got you in their sights!
Don’t mess with me.
Below is an article from the Fort Carson Air Force Base newspaper on me and the fieldwork I was doing there that summer: