Calgary Zoo hopes pilot project will mitigate decline in burrowing owls

The Calgary Zoo hopes a new pilot project will turn the weakest links of an endangered species into love machines.

Migration success rate can increase almost 7-fold by giving weaker birds a year to grow, and mate

A new Calgary Zoo conservation program hopes to take young and vulnerable burrowing owls and give them a hand up. (File Photo/Ryan Brennecke/The Associated Press)

The Calgary Zoo hopes a new pilot project will turn the weakest links of an endangered species into love machines.

The zoo's director of conservation says he has an affection for burrowing owls.

"They are a wonderful prairie species that lives and burrows in the ground. They are quite small, they only stand about 20-centimetres high, and yet they are so precious and interesting," Axel Moehrenschlager told CBC News Tuesday.

"They are able to make the sound of a rattlesnake to deter predators from their burrows."

He says however, despite being precious they are also an at-risk species, listed as endangered in Canada.

Moehrenschlager said human development, food availability and pesticides have encroached on the bird's natural habitat.

"They are doing badly in the country and possibly in the United States as well. It is Canada's fastest declining bird of prey. In the 1990s the populations decreased by about 90 per cent. We are looking at potential decreases of 15 per cent per year," he explained.

The zoo says the program could increase the success of survival among the most vulnerable from 6% to about 40%. (Calgary Zoo)

The program, which has provincial and federal partners, is about capturing the young birds that are least likely to survive on their own.

It's about looking at the most vulnerable.

"When owls have young, they lay the eggs in a sequence. The ones that hatch last are also the smallest. They are then competing with their siblings which is not an issue if there is enough food but when there is not enough food it actually means that those little owls are most likely to die," Moehrenschlager said.

Burrowing owls make a sound like a rattlesnake to deter predators. (File Photo/J. Pat Carter/The Associated Press)

The project involves taking 15 young birds into the care of zoo experts, nurturing them over the winter when they would normally be migrating.

Moehrenschlager says the project could increase their chance of survival by almost seven-fold.

"Even if the little owls survive long enough in the wild, their chance of returning from migration is about six per cent. By holding them over the winter and having them one year older, the chance of them returning on migration goes up to about 40 per cent," he said.

Burrowing owls lay eggs in a sequence. The ones that hatch last are usually the smallest and most at risk of not surviving migration. (File Photo/Rick Roach/The Associated Press)

In May they will be released in pairs, and hopefully, love will be in the air.

"When we release burrowing owls as pairs they are extremely likely to breed immediately in the wild so we are not just saving those individuals from almost certain mortality, but also being able to put them out to produce more burrowing owls so that there is this additive and cumulative effect for the population."

Before release, the little owls are fitted with technology so their movement and hopefully success, can be tracked.

"We will be able to satellite track them, actually see where they go on their migration path, what their survival rates are and then based on those answers, potentially engaging with the Americans or Mexicans wherever they go, to help the owls along the entire migratory path."

He hopes the project can be expanded if they get the results they are looking for next year.

With files from Diane Yanko