She did it for love: Rare wild owl tries burrowing into Manitoba enclosure to find mate

A small, tenacious owl discovered trying to worm its way into a captive male's enclosure last weekend has found a love connection researchers hope will result in much-needed burrowing owl chicks.

Researcher says fewer than 5 pairs of burrowing owls left in wild; Manitoba population nearing extirpation

This wild female burrowing owl was found trying to dig and headbutt its way into the enclosure of a captive male near Melita, Man., on Sunday. (Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program/Facebook)

A small, tenacious owl discovered trying to worm its way into a captive male's enclosure last weekend has found a love connection researchers hope will result in much-needed burrowing owl chicks.

A field assistant with the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program was doing a regular check on the program's five captive mating pairs on Sunday when she spotted the wild little owl, apparently doggedly interested in getting inside one of the pens.

"She was trying to push through [chicken wire] with her head, which she wasn't able to do, and then she was digging at the outside of the pen as well. She was using her talons to sort of dig underneath — it wasn't doing too much," said Alex Froese, the program director.

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"She was very, very eager and very interested in getting into this pen."

Froese and her team have been working for years to protect Manitoba's dwindling burrowing owl population, which she said is endangered across the country and near extirpation in the province. She guesses there are fewer than five mating pairs of wild owls left in Manitoba.

Each year, her team places five to 10 pairs of captive owls into separate enclosures near Melita and hope they nest. A small number of chicks from each family are held back for the following year, and the rest are released into the wild with their parents.

Alexandra Froese, program director of the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program, sits with Ko'ko, one of the owls in the program. (Submitted by Charlene Berkvens)

At first, Froese said the field assistant assumed the little owl on Sunday was one of the captive owls that had somehow broken free. But a thorough search of the enclosures determined all resident owls were accounted for, and the inquisitive newcomer wasn't banded.

After a brief consultation, Froese directed her assistant to craft a one-way entry to the enclosure using chicken wire. The new owl was inside within an hour and sparks quickly flew.

"The male had already attempted to mate with her within the time that it took me to get there, which was maybe half an hour," she said. "He was very eager to have her in there with him."

'Burrowing owl dating life' 

Froese said she has been so excited about the owl's appearance that she has had trouble sleeping.

"It was an amazing feeling, just to see that there was an owl back in this pasture where there were owls here, years and years ago … and that's why we selected that area to release our owls in," she said.

After the successful meeting, Froese said she consulted with other program stakeholders and got approval to pair the new owl with the male, who hadn't hit it off with his former partner.

Of the five pairs researchers placed together, they were the only set who hadn't already nested.

That might be part of the reason the new female was well received, Froese said, although she's still not certain why the wild bird was drawn to the enclosure in the first place. It may have been the ideal environmental conditions in the field, or she could have heard the male owl calling for a mate.

The resident female owl from that pair will also be matched with a new male, Froese said. 

"I don't know all the inner workings of the burrowing owl dating life or things like that. This might be a better match for this female that we're going to move," she said.

She's hoping it all results in more young owls and greater genetic diversity in her group.

"It's really wonderful," she said. "We're really, really excited and I feel like there's so much potential, even with one more owl in our group. It's amazing."

With files from Janice Grant and Aidan Geary