Manitoba burrowing owls recovery program threatened as species makes comeback

A program helping to revive the endangered burrowing owl population in Manitoba is at risk, once again, of extinction.

2022 is the 3rd time wild owls have returned to artificial nesting sites after 9-year hiatus

A trail camera captures one of three male burrowing owls, the third set of wild birds to return to Manitoba in three years. They have decorated their burrows with cow manure before standing on top of them and calling out for a mate. (Submitted by Alex Froese)

A program helping to revive the endangered burrowing owl population in Manitoba is at risk, once again, 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 survey their population.

It comes just as three wild male owls moved into the program's artificial nesting burrows at a site in southwestern Manitoba this spring, and are actively calling out for female companions.

"That's very exciting for us that we've noticed these three owls and all of them are using the artificial nest burrows. It really sends home to us we're 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 property owners to place artificial nesting sites at carefully chosen spots around the province based on birds' past behaviour.

She said this is the third time in the past three years that wild birds have returned to the sites; before that, the last wild pair nested in 2011.

"It just kinda comes full circle for me … thinking, wow, we've put in all these burrows, we've put in probably about 300 burrows throughout the southwest corner there and to see that owls are selecting those and sticking to them for nesting too 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 artificial sites set up by the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Project. (Submitted by Alex Froese)

The long-legged, small-bodied, round-headed birds of prey are also demonstrating some interesting courtship behaviours.

"They actually use cow manure and kind of break it up and decorate the burrow and they stand by the burrow or up on a higher spot right by the burrow and they're calling," Froese said. 

The rare birds, whose call is a signature "coo-coo" sound, have until mid-June to secure females, she said, in order to get their young strong enough for the migration to the Gulf of Mexico in the fall.

"I'm pretty optimistic," she said. "I'm always hopeful that we're going to be able to help burrowing owls and see more come to the province."

Burrowing owls, the only owls in Canada that nest in the ground, typically rely on the burrows of other animals such as badgers and foxes. The small birds dropped from 100 pairs in the 1980s to only 10 in 2012, before the program's inception.

To preserve their dwindling population, Froese and her team created the artificial nests, comprised of a 10-foot log tube used for weeping tile attached to a bucket and placed five feet in the ground to offer a level of protection that a natural burrow wouldn't.

So far, Froese and her team have helped hatch and reintroduce more than 200 owls.

The program, which was also under threat of ending in 2020, until it received grant funding and public donations, also researches owl habitat, reproduction and survival, and educates the public about the species.

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

The following year, those owls were paired up, held over for the next breeding season and gradually released from their nesting enclosures to the wild, after their young were born, and the cycle continues.

"This is my 10th year as a formal program and every year has been a challenge, I would say for funding, but especially these past three because the federal and provincial funding have just gone to the wayside so without some larger donations," Froese said.

So far this year, Froese said they've received two grants totalling about $20,000 — approximately 20 per cent of their $100,000 annual budget.

She said she's hopeful that a past grant from the Manitoba Beef Producers will be reinstated, and that once again, the public will come through to help see their work carry on.

"Without some larger donations I don't know if we'll be able to continue."

With files from Janice Grant


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