Manitoba burrowing owl recovery program under threat as species returns

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A program helping to revive Manitoba’s endangered burrowing owl population is once again at risk of extinction.

Funding has run out for the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program, which works to reintroduce the birds to the wild, improve their habitat and study their population.

It comes just as three wild male owls have taken up residence in the program’s artificial nesting burrows at a site in southwestern Manitoba this spring and are actively calling for mates.

“It is very exciting for us that we noticed these three owls and they are all using the artificial burrows. It really reminds us that we are on the right track,” said Alex Froese, executive director of the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program.

Since the program’s inception in 2013, she and her team have worked with landowners to place artificial nesting sites in carefully chosen locations around the province based on past bird behavior.

She said it was the third time in the past three years that wild birds had returned to the sites; before that, the last wild pair nested in 2011.

“It’s kind of come full circle for me…thinking, wow, we’ve put all these burrows, we’ve probably put up about 300 burrows in the southwest corner there and seeing the owls pick them and s stick to it while also nesting and raising a family, it really shows you that what we’re doing is right.”

A trail camera captures one of the wild male burrowing owls that have returned to Manitoba to nest in man-made sites set up by the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Project. (Submitted by Alex Froese)

Long-legged, small-bodied, round-headed birds of prey also exhibit interesting courtship behaviors.

“They actually use cow manure and break it up and decorate the burrow and they stand near the burrow or at a higher place right next to the burrow and they call,” Froese said.

The rare birds, whose call is a characteristic “coo-coo” sound, have until mid-June to secure females, she said, so that their young are strong enough for migration to the Gulf. from Mexico in the fall.

“I’m pretty optimistic,” she said. “I’m still hopeful that we can help the burrowing owls and see more come to the province.”

Burrowing owls, the only ground-nesting owls in Canada, generally depend on the burrows of other animals such as badgers and foxes. The small birds went from 100 pairs in the 1980s to just 10 in 2012, before the program was created.

To preserve their dwindling population, Froese and his team created the artificial nests, consisting of a 10-foot wooden tube used to weep tiles tied to a bucket and placed five feet into the ground to provide a level of protection. that a natural terrier would not have. t.

So far, Froese and his team have helped hatch and reintroduce over 200 owls.

The program, which was also threatened with ending in 2020, until it received public grants and donations, also studies owl habitat, breeding and survival, and educates the public about the species. .

It all started in 2013 with five founding pairs of owls, with the young of those pairs being removed from the wild and held at the Assiniboine Park Zoo for the winter.

The following year, these owls were paired, retained for the next breeding season, and gradually released from their nesting enclosures into the wild after their young were born, and the cycle continues.

“This is my 10th year as an official program and every year has been a challenge, I would say for funding, but especially the last three because federal and provincial funding just disappeared, so no larger donations,” said said Froese. .

So far this year, Froese said they’ve received two grants totaling about $20,000, or about 20% of their $100,000 annual budget.

She said she hopes a former grant from the Manitoba Beef Producers will be reinstated and that once again the public will come out to help see their work continue.

“Without larger donations, I don’t know if we can continue.”

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