Lauren Meads of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society with one of the young owls that will soon be part of an education program somewhere in Canada. Mark Brett/Western News

Down and dirty for South Okanagan burrowing owls

Volunteers needed for a series of work camps to restory burrowing owl dens

If you have a few hours to spare and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty — for a great cause — then the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society needs you.

Lauren Meads of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society with one of the young owls that will soon be part of an education program somewhere in Canada. Mark Brett/Western News

As part of a pilot project with the World Wildlife Fund and their ongoing partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, starting next month there will be a series of four habitat restoration camps that require volunteers.

“It is labour intensive and it is definitely for people who are capable of digging and doing some hard labour but this is work that is critical to the reintroduction of the burrowing owl species back to these regions,” said biologist Lauren Meads, BOCS executive director. “They’ve (owls) had a rough year from a lot of the hot and cold cycles and flooding. The last few years they have been doing really well. We’re having more owls coming back from migration, averaging between 30 and 60 was our best year a few years ago and that’s a 100 per cent better than it used to be which was zero.

“Unfortunately this year was not great. We had a lot of owls start nests and a lot of them abandoned them probably due to the weather and now we’re having to deal with issues relating to climate change.”

She added that means changes in strategies, which is currently being done with the society’s partners in other parts of Canada and the United States.

“That’s why this work with the burrows is so important. If the owls come back and everything’s filled up or there’s a bunch of grass in front or it’s filled up with water — so this really, really helps the owls that want to come back and breed again if we can get all their burrows sorted out,” said Meads. “If they come to an area and there’s no burrow available to them then they’re going to move on and that creates extra risk to them for predation.”

During their prime, the burrowing owl nested in vacated dens created by badgers and other ground dwellers. However, a reduction in those species’ numbers prompted the need for the human-built nests which began in the ‘90s.

One of the captive breeding program owls.

The burrowing owl is currently extirpated (locally extinct) and there have been ongoing efforts to re-introduce the long-legged, ground nesters back to the province’s grassland ecosystems.

Meads estimated there are currently about 800 man-made burrows in B.C. with about 500 actively being used.

“What we’re doing with these projects is moving or repairing the ones that are already in place and maybe just putting in two or three new ones,” she said. “Normally, if there was a burrowing mammal in there, they would have piled up a bunch of dirt at the front that would have prevented grass from growing. Also, there are invasive weeds so we want to pull out some of that and replace it with wild native grasses.”

While there are a few perks that go along with volunteering for the projects, the real reward according to Meads is: “The satisfaction of knowing you have helped burrowing owls.”

There are just over 20 volunteer spots available for each of the four dates.

The NCC camp is Sept. 15 between 8 a.m. and noon in the Sage and Sparrow Conservation Area near Osoyoos. Participants will meet with NCC and BOCS representatives at the Osoyoos Visitor Centre.

Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended and carpooling options are available.

For more information about requirements and to register go to https://events.natureconservancy.ca/al-event/burrowing-for-the-owls/. There are only about a dozen spots left.

The WWF camps are Sept. 8 at the captive breeding facility at Vaseux Lake (on the grounds of the SORCO Raptor Rehab Centre) Oct. 5 (South Okanagan) and Oct. 13 (Central Interior – Merritt).

The registration link to sign up for the camps is http://www.wwf.ca/what_you_can_do/be_a_wildlifer.cfm##bc.

Pilot project with World Wildlife Fund

The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society has been chosen as one of just six organizations in the country to take part in a pilot project with World Wildlife Fund Canada.

It will involve three work camps to restore and create new habitat for the owl species which is listed extirpated (locally extinct).

“We’re looking at better understanding on how we can encourage Canadians to take concrete measurable high-impact actions that benefit will benefit wildlife,” said Devika Shah, WWF senior manager in a telephone interview from Toronto. “So we decided that looking at the fact that wildlife is severely in decline and what the reasons are for that is one of the missing factors is that there isn’t a strong enough constituency of people who are actively engaging in a hands-on way and then speaking up as well for the protection of nature.

“We’re a national organization but we wanted to work with some boots-on-the-ground organizations that are doing some of that tangible hands-on work and that are facilitating that already for Canadians to help and then work with them in a way where we’re kind of learning together.”

They are hoping to get the attention of people who would not necessarily volunteer for such a task.

BOCS came to their attention as an organization that was one of those organizations making a difference in wildlife conservation.

“So we looked at where are those biodiversity hotspots in the country that are in the greatest need of that people-powered action and so the South Okanagan was one of those areas,” said Shah.

This, albeit short-term partnership, is the second with a national organization for the BOCS, having worked in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy of Canada for the past four years and which is also sponsoring a den rehab camp in September.

“Our partnership with the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society has been able to provide a vast selection of habitat for the reintroduction sites and fund parts of their program,” said NCC South Interior program director. “We’ve done volunteer events to have people come out and dig the burrow and have a first-hand experience in creating homes for these owls and it’s a partnership that we really cherish and it’s a real privilege.”

NCC has purchased vast tracts of grasslands in the region over the years critical to the survival of the many rare and endangered species like the owls that live or migrate there.

According to Lauren Meads, BOCS executive director, the real winners in the relationships is wildlife.

“There is also just so many opportunities and partnering with bigger entities is always great for small non-profits like ours,” said Meads. “NCC is a great partner and we love working with them and helping improve sites.”

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.


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A member of the captive breeding program at the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society facility near Oliver. Mark Brett/Western News

One of the captive breeding program owls Mark Brett/Western News

Lauren Meads of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society works on a soft release cage at one of the human-built dens some of which are needing repairs. Mark Brett/Western News

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