British Columbia

Nearly 100 juvenile burrowing owls take first steps into the wild

On Friday, as part of their decades-long project to save the bird from extinction, the B.C Wildlife park in Kamloops will release dozens of burrowing owls into the wild.

The next step in decades-long plan will see dozens of juvenile owls released in the B.C. Interior

Burrowing owls are tiny creatures that rely on underground habitats for survival. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

Residents of B.C.'s Interior shouldn't be alarmed if they start seeing a bunch of owls flying around in coming days. It's all part of the plan.

The B.C. Wildlife Park — a zoo in Kamloops, B.C. — has been working for decades to save the native population of burrowing owls from extinction. The park released dozens of the birds into the wild Friday.

It's part of a provincial survival plan to stabilize the animal's declining population.

"Historically, there were owls here, but we like to live exactly where the owls like to live," said Tracy Reynolds, a zookeeper at the park.

"Because of our farms actually taking over their habitat, they've declined to the point of being almost gone."

The park, a member of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C., is trying to create livable areas for the creatures, educate the public on their importance and prevent further owl-habitat loss.

The B.C. Wildlife Park's award-winning owl breeding operation is one of three in the province. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

For years, the park has been breeding burrowing owls, and then moving them to large, caged enclosures around the Interior as they get older.

First, the animal spends some time flapping around the enclosure, getting used to it. Then, when the time is right, the enclosures are opened and almost 100 of the tagged owls will be free to roam.

The hope is that many of the tagged owls will return to the prepared enclosures in B.C. after they migrate south for the winter.

In this way, the park hopes to learn valuable information about their migratory patterns and habits, while also providing the creatures with an attractive home.

Many of the enclosures are built on private ranches through a partnership between volunteers with the owl conservation society and private landowners in the Thompson- Nicola and Okanagan regions.

Roughly 400 enclosures, or artificial burrows, are in use.

Pushed out of grasslands

The owls were pushed entirely out of B.C.'s grasslands by the 1980s due to widespread agriculture projects. The owls live in burrows dug by rodents, and as humans expanded their farms, they also expanded their use of rat poison.

When the rodents began dying, the owls lost their homes. Shortly after their extirpation, the B.C. Ministry of Environment began efforts to bring them back to the grasslands.

The B.C. Wildlife Park's breeding program began in 1990 and since then, it has released over 2,500 owls into the wild.

Over the last five years, it has reported owls migrating back in stable numbers for the first time, but still not enough to bring them out of endangerment.

The presence of the owls, which are less than 20 centimetres tall, is an important indicator of a grassland ecosystem's health.

With files from Daybreak Kamloops