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Two simple tricks to help owls stay in their new home

For wildlife, the Western owl is a tolerant neighbor to humans. As new houses and roads are built next to the tunnels they call home, these owls will tolerate the noise and continue to hunt the insects and rodents they feed on. But owls are increasingly prone to collisions with humans.

Developers are always looking for more land to build on, and in places like Southern California that means moving into owl habitat. So far, most builders have relocated owls by tearing down their burrows, forcing them to find a new home nearby. Even so, in heavily urbanized environments, birds often have nowhere to go, putting the species’ future at risk.

As a result, wildlife officials working with developers are increasingly collecting and transplanting owls to new, remote areas that conservationists think will meet the needs of the wild. they. However, evidence that this technique works is scant. New research published on Thursday in Animal Conservation magazine showed it could be very effective if the birds were tricked into believing that there were other burrowing owls near where they were transplanted.

The new report’s lead author, Ronald Swaisgood of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, knows that developers are setting aside land for migratory birds, but notes that there’s been little follow-up work on this how owls work.

“Nobody has an idea if these mitigations are even effective,” he said.

Aware that the bird was under consideration for classification as endangered in California, Dr. Swaisgood was keen to intervene. He and other conservationists feel as if nothing can stop real estate development, including new solar farms. Given the complicated situation, he and his team teamed up with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct an experiment with land owls that will be bulldozed in the greater San Diego area. than.

To understand whether owl transplants would work, the researchers set up special doors in the owls’ burrows to allow the owls to leave but not return. Once the owls were out, all 44 were collected and moved to a new location that already had a burrow for them. To help these displaced owls cope, they were kept in acclimatized enclosures for 30 days before being released. In this group, half were exposed to a little trickery.

Researchers have known from previous studies with other species, such as black rhinos, vultures and kangaroo rats, that animals are more likely to settle down when they believe members of the fellows are near.

With this in mind, for half of the birds, the team shot non-toxic white paint on the rocks around the cave in a new location that looked like bird droppings. They did this because burrowing owls tend to defecate near cave entrances and the technique makes the sites look inhabited. To further support this illusion, an outdoor speaker was set up at these locations to periodically play burrowing calls during the week before the animals were released from the acclimatization area and during next week.

All this ecological duplication has paid off. The 22 birds were moved to locations where the white paint and calls quickly stabilized while the other 22 owls all roamed, often making perilous journeys of more than five miles before being found. suitable living environment.

The findings are being warmly received by other ecologists.

Dan Blumstein, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, said the idea of ​​transplants has long created a dilemma for experts in the field of ecology.

“There’s been an assumption that if endangered animals were moved they would be fine, but that’s clearly not always the case,” he said. “Tests like these are essential to find out what works and what doesn’t.”

Dr Blumstein and Dr Swaisgood both hope to see transplants of other species studied in a similar way to ensure that the good intentions of scientists do not lead to unnecessary hardship for the species in question. cliff edge.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/28/science/burrowing-owls-transplants.html Two simple tricks to help owls stay in their new home

Fry Electronics Team

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