Audubon Launches the Rio Salado Burrowing Owl Project
Josselyn Berry

It was a cool early morning when a group of Audubon volunteers heaved shovels into rocky earth, straightened coils of tubes, and moved stones. Gathering along the edge of the Salt River bed, their mission was to build homes for the Burrowing Owls that would soon live there. 

The Burrowing Owl project is part of Audubon’s Conservation Workdays, a monthly program that engages the community in hands-on conservation projects that range from river cleanups to garden installation at the Rio Salado Habitat.  The project began on January 19th, when an eclectic mix of nearly 200 people came to the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center to get their hands dirty installing sixty-six new homes for Burrowing Owls. Groups included five high school clubs, individuals and families from the community, and corporate volunteer groups. The Burrowing Owl project is part of Audubon’s Conservation Workdays, a monthly program that engages the community in hands-on conservation projects that range from river cleanups to garden installation at the Rio Salado habitat.  

Burrowing Owls make their homes out in wide open space.  They prefer areas with minimal vegetation which often wind up being scraped lots ready for development, one of the biggest threats to Burrowing Owls.

Gathering in the Audubon Center’s classroom as the morning sun filled the room, volunteers learned the basics of burrow installation.  Cathy Wise, Audubon’s education director, and Greg Clark, Wild at Heart’s burrowing owl coordinator, warned participants that the work would not be easy. Clark explained the sites were rocky and dusty earth. But no one seemed fazed; it was all for the Burrowing Owls.

Audubon Arizona and Wild at Heart began working together on the Burrowing Owl project last year. Wild at Heart is a volunteer organization devoted to rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing injured birds of prey. Audubon is thrilled to work with Wild at Heart in engaging the public to create habitat. 

“We have a successful model for volunteer days and operate out of a great location for training and deploying volunteers,” said Wise.

 “Wild at Heart and Audubon—put them together and you get homes for Burrowing Owls,” Clark said.

Upon arriving at the burrow site, volunteers gathered around the habitat’s trenches where the burrows would go. Overlooking the brush-filled river bed lay all the supplies for constructing an owl’s home: plastic buckets, coils of tubing, shovels, PVC pipes, wires, duct tape, and mesh.

“If you’re a Burrowing Owl competing for space; you’re the loser,” Clark said.

The less vegetated areas along the Salt River bed are ideal for Burrowing Owls, as flat open land makes it easy for these wide-eyed owls to observe predators.

Sweeping his hand out, a volunteer leader pointed to large trees near the burrows. Although predator birds nest there, Burrowing Owls can easily see them. He then pivoted his hand in the opposite direction to a cluster of bare-branched trees where hawks perched. “Burrowing owls have their eyes on them too.”                                                                                                       

Wild at Heart volunteer Tom Lemon directed a group of ten volunteers on one of the Burrowing Owl sites. Lemon’s father and grandfather were both avid birdwatchers; he has loved birds since he was young and has been volunteering for five years.

Of the organizations’ partnership, Lemon said, “It’s a great fit. Audubon has supplied a lot of volunteers.”

This was his fourth time installing Burrowing Owl habitats and he’s hopeful that the Burrowing Owls will enjoy their new homes and eventually breed in them. Wise said the peak breeding season for Burrowing Owls is April through June.

Not only will the habitats make homes for the Burrowing Owls, but they will also host a range of other wildlife, such as snakes and lizards.  To reach the Rio Salado Burrowing Owl project’s goal of installing all 100 burrows at two sites along 24th Street and 7th Street, volunteers worked over two Saturdays in January and February.  In March two volunteer groups, including a group from Intel, assisted in the release of 14 owls.  The newly released owls will breed and nest in the tent-covered burrows for roughly a month. Once that happens the burrows will become home.

Julia Perry is a biology teacher at Central High School. This was her first time coming to Audubon’s Conservation Workdays, but has volunteered for our teen field biology program, River Pathways.

After surveying a burrow that was almost complete she said, “If I were a burrowing owl I’d want to come and live in these condos and have little owlets.”

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