Fifteen young burrowing owls deemed likely to die in 2016 have survived the winter in captivity and been released into the wild, marking a first for owl conservation in Alberta. 

It's being touted as a "monumental milestone" for the Calgary Zoo's inaugural year of a conservation project that takes owlets into captivity during their fragile first year when they'd face a dangerous migration.

Wild populations of burrowing owls have declined by 90 per cent since the 1990s, and the population continues to deteriorate, said the zoo in a release.

"For the first time we are saving individual owls from the trials of long-distance migration, reinforcing a population and determining effectiveness through satellite-tracking across three countries," said Axel Moehrenschlager, conservation director at the Calgary Zoo.

All 7 pairs mate and lay eggs

Research on wild owls shows the population is especially fragile between the time owlets fledge from their nests and when they should return as one-year-olds to breed in Canada, said Troy Wellicome, senior species-at-risk biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service. 

Calgary zoo burrowing owl

In the spring, while the owls were in captivity, federal and provincial field staff worked with the zoo to identify locations for eight artificial nest burrows in which the seven pairs and single female owl would be placed upon release. (Calgary Zoo)

The head-starting project artificially circumvents that stage of high mortality.

All eight female and seven male owls chosen in 2016 were outfitted with satellite transmitters and introduced into their new burrows this spring.

After being released in pairs, the one-year-old owls settled into their burrows, mated, and all seven pairs have laid eggs. It is hoped that these offspring will hatch and join their parents' fall migration to Mexico or the southern U.S.

The burrowing owl head-starting project is the first of its kind in Western Canada and involves Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), and Alberta Environment and Parks.

The second year of the project will continue in 2017 with a new set of owlets gathered this summer.

"By using science, I believe we can make a positive difference for this cherished Canadian species over the years to come," said Moehrenschlager.