These owls have adoring human neighbors. Their burrow is dug on the lawn of a couple who, along with their grandson, delight in seeing the birds nest year after year on the property; they even intentionally leave one of their cars parked outside the garage, to offer the tiny owls shade. This year the owl pair had six chicks, five of which survived to fledge. Photo: Karine Aigner

Flock Together

Burrowing Owls Are the Family Next Door in this Florida Boom Town

Locals and researchers are working to keep Marco Island hospitable to the birds, which are declining across the state, as development devours the vacant lots where they make their homes.

Fate would not smile kindly on the six feathered inches of furious resignation splayed belly up in the left hand of Allison Smith. Wings slightly spread, the young Florida Burrowing Owl’s penny-wide green eyes remained unblinking at the indignity of such a position. Intent on banding and measuring the chick before taking a blood sample from an under-wing vein, Smith couldn’t foresee its future. 

Neither could volunteer Jean Hall. She was helping Smith, a graduate student in wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, band several offspring from the same family as part of Owl Watch, a community-scientist research collaboration funded by Audubon of the Western Everglades.

The Gulf Coast barrier island of Marco, a 7,700-acre dry-land dollop of one-time mangroves lying in turquoise and azure waters south of Naples, is now thick with houses, condominiums, strip malls, resort hotels, marinas, and golf courses, along with 18,000 year-round residents. The population swells to some 40,000 each winter.

Marco of all places: an unlikely urban habitat for Athene cunicularia floridana, a subspecies limited to peninsular Florida and the Bahamas and genetically distinct from the western Burrowing Owl, whose habitat ranges from Texas to California. The little owls are listed as threatened in Florida and protected both by state and Marco Island laws. Almost 250 breeding pairs live here, the vast majority on empty lots in burrows marked out by stakes and yellow plastic tape. At last count by Owl Watch volunteers and researchers, they had fledged 463 chicks this year, with more likely to round out the seasonal number. No one knows the total Florida population.

Burrowing Owls can no longer rely on their traditional Florida habitat, the drier open prairies of the state’s south-central interior where periodic flood and fire nurtured the natural system for millennia. (The two exceptions include the 106,000-acre Avon Park Air Force Range and the 54,000-acre Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park). And they won’t again. Those landscapes are almost all gone, swallowed by the work of large-scale developers during the state’s explosion from 5 million inhabitants in 1960, when air conditioning and mosquito control arrived in force, to about 21 million today. Now the owls hang on in small populations of rural birds living on cattle ranches and urban birds that reside on the coasts of peninsular Florida.

Smith and colleagues at the University of Florida, aided by a small army of Owl Watch volunteers, are studying both rural and urban populations to determine their size and health, discover how widely the birds disperse and what they need to nest, and quantify the risks to their survival.

While Burrowing Owls face threats from a number of predators, including hawks, crows, and domestic cats, urban dwellers experience additional pressures—as the unfortunate chick that Smith banded shows. Hatched into the crowded Marco milieu on one of the island’s rapidly disappearing vacant lots, the little owl would be dead within days of being banded, killed 100 feet from its burrow near an urgent-care center by a car on a busy road. Its mother would stand guard beside its body before dragging it back to the burrow, a heartbreaking incident photographer Karine Aigner came upon by chance and documented.

In spite of such inevitable losses on Marco, humans and owls living cheek-to-jowl here seem to share an unprecedented tolerance for each other, at least for now. The reasons are simple: Owls are as adaptable as they are charismatic. And they’ve attracted organized and determined defenders among local residents as well as researchers. Together, activists and ornithologists could help them survive this century, or at least the next two or three decades.

The Grifoni family (top) is passionate about the Burrowing Owls on Marco Island. Siblings Calvin, 9, and Tosca, 8, are two of the youngest Owl Watch volunteers. They attend workshops and meetings with their mother, Elsa, and monitor their assigned burrows, where they count the new chicks. The children also help Elsa fill out owl monitoring reports (bottom). Photos: Karine Aigner

Hall, a knowledgeable birder, photographer, and certified master naturalist who retired from a career in the airline industry, is wiry and tough, a native Tennessean, and arguably the fiercest of a cadre of “bad-ass women,” as she characterizes the Owl Watch volunteers. (The vast majority of the 65 participants are women.) The collaboration between residents and researchers, she says, “is a perfect storm of love and science.”

The volunteers, who are paired up, monitor every burrow on Marco Island. Each duo is responsible for checking a dozen or more burrows once a week and following a strict protocol: “Sit there for 10 minutes, count all the things they see, note it,” says Brad Cornell, policy director for Audubon Western Everglades. “Is there a bulldozer next to a burrow? Are there chicks? Are there any dead owls? Has the barrier been knocked down or removed?”

The data they collect are helpful and sometimes amusing. Only days before the chick met its grisly fate, an upbeat Smith relayed some recent findings to Owl Watch volunteers. 

Individual birds, and some entire families, were spotted moving from one neighborhood to another, or across canals, or even 15 miles away to Naples and into an electrical box, spurred by their food and range needs to seek out new territories. 

The most compelling news suggested Marco’s Burrowing Owls are well within range of the big-pasture cattle ranches in Florida’s interior, since “an owl we banded in 2017 moved to the Miami International Airport” about 100 miles away, Smith said. “So we know how far they can travel.”

Unfortunately, that owl died after crashing into the windows of an airport building occupied by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service—an unhappy irony she learned when an official checked its band with identifying information and telephoned her.

And finally this: “Some stayed at home and are mating with their moms.”

That observation drew a few raised eyebrows and a couple of uncomfortable chuckles from the crowd, but it doesn’t surprise Smith, who has seen the behavior before.

Jean Hall watches on as Karol Tenace (top) fixes a rope post at an owl burrow. When a burrow is found, volunteers like Hall and Tenace rope it off to alert humans to their presence. They also install a T-post, as the owls like to have a higher view. Hall and Tenace show their dedication to the birds by continuously monitoring burrows and maintaining the ropes and posts—and donning owl-adorned boots (bottom). Photos: Karine Aigner

Currently 95 percent of Marco’s owls dig out their homes on vacant lots. That includes the parents of that unfortunate chick, whose burrow is distinguished by a shin-high mound of dirt and detritus above ground. The small opening at the surface is the mouth of a tunnel that can be up to 3 feet deep and 12 feet long. For three or four months, chicks depend on both parents, who make regular deliveries of Cuban tree frogs, anoles, insects such as grasshoppers, or anything else they can capture and kill, including other small birds.

This pair’s four offspring were five to six weeks old when Hall and Smith visited the burrow. As they do anywhere owls reside, the two women moved carefully about the burrow without stepping on the ground directly above it to avoid punching through the soft earth and collapsing the tunnel.

They laid down rectangular box-wire traps and loops of fishing line pinned to a small board, a so-called “noose carpet” designed to snag the birds near the entrance. Working together in comfortable familiarity, they slipped each captured bird quickly into a soft cloth bag with a drawstring, then moved them to Smith’s car, a hatchback serving as a make-do workstation.

At the burrow, Smith inserted a miniature camera affixed to a long length of PVC pipe into the tunnel, glimpsing activity and counting birds or eggs; she also placed a palm-sized recorder just inside the entrance. It played a softly hooting male call in a continuous loop—a tool designed to draw both his ire and the male himself, who stood in baleful anxiety on a nearby post, occasionally bobbing his head in a warning feint. 

Smith weighs and bands a Burrowing Owl chick in the back of her car. Photos: Karine Aigner

Smith intended to band and draw a blood sample from every owl she captured, injecting the blood from a tiny syringe into finger-size test tubes for a fellow graduate student and ornithologist, Liz White Rose. Rose works with rural owls living on big ranches across the state’s south-central interior, lands long-ago drained and re-engineered by humans to support cows. Bad for some wildlife, the open grasslands where cattle graze are seemingly a boon to Burrowing Owls. Her research, which also depends on data collection by Owl Watch volunteers, seeks to determine if rural owls are genetically related to urban owls in Florida. That could reveal whether Marco’s owls are shoring up populations of rural owls on the big ranches about 80 miles to the east, or vice versa. If that’s the case—and if one population suddenly suffers a decline—the other could also face significant risk.

While Marco’s owls appear to be thriving, Smith and her advisor at the University of Florida IFAS Extension, ornithologist Raoul Boughton, are concerned because the vacant lots where nearly all of the birds now live are vanishing every day as new buildings go up.

Burrowing Owls have been known to live in the holes of gopher tortoises and armadillos, in culverts, drainpipes, on ball fields, and, in one Marco case, beside the playground of a school—Tommie Barfield Elementary—where students study and protect them. Yet such nesting behavior is unlikely to ensure the bird’s survival; there simply aren’t enough of these spots.

“Once the lots become saturated with burrowing pairs, once the owls fill all the breeding space left on the island, what do they do?” Boughton asks. “When that happens, we will probably witness a declining population. When Marco is built out, my expectation is that the 95 percent of owls now on those lots—they’re gone. Unless there is some way for us to provide breeding habitat that appeals to them.”

The answer might be starter burrows—structures scraped out of lots or yards to mimic natural burrows. Since last year, Smith and Owl Watch volunteers have deployed 66 starter burrows on residential properties, and they plan to put out more if property owners agree to be owl hosts, and if the owls take to them—not a certainty. So far, owls have excavated 13 of those into full burrows and nested in eight, a development that gives Smith cautious hope.

None of this research could have occurred without the extraordinary early efforts of a woman named Nancy Richie, the city’s longtime environmental specialist who now works independently as an environmental consultant. 

Richie single-handedly started counting burrows two decades ago, struggling to protect the owls in the days when locals often viewed wildlife conservation as a potential threat to property values. Around that time, for instance, hundreds of angry residents crowded into public meetings to protest putting in place protections for Piping Plovers on local beaches.

It was hard going, even for the high-energy, affable Richie, a self-described nature lover with a degree in marine biology who, at that time, was raising two children on the island with her sea-going Merchant Marine husband. 

Smith (top) sets up a trap at a burrow in order to capture owls for her research. In part, she's investigating whether owls will make use of manmade "starter" burrows as the vacant lots they've long depended on are being developed. An Owl Watch volunteer (bottom) releases a rehabilitated owl back to its burrow. Photos: Karine Aigner

Richie had long been aware of a pair of owls nesting on an empty lot near the Art League building, and often stopped with her young children to watch the comical duo. She took a professional interest in the birds, then listed them as a state “species of special concern,” when she began forming the city’s endangered species management plan in 1999 and learned that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) had recorded 10 burrows on Marco. She soon discovered that six of those had been bulldozed and built over. Indefatigable, she tracked down about 30 burrows on her own, monitoring the owls and erecting little barriers around their homes with stakes and tape. She recruited dozens of volunteers to help her track the birds, and hob-knobbed with mowing crews who knew where the owls were. By 2004 she had identified 100 or so burrows. 

Richie’s efforts convinced the city to establish an ordinance in 2003 protecting the owls. It required a 10-foot buffer zone around owl nest sites, and any property owner who wanted to remove a burrow had to first obtain a permit from the FWC. 

When Florida upgraded the Burrowing Owl to “threatened” status in 2016, property owners were also required to pay $1,900 for any destroying, or harassing the inhabitants of, burrows clustered within 150 feet of each other, money paid into an FWC Conservation Fund to protect the species anywhere in Florida. 

This year Marco Island’s elected leaders updated the city owl ordinance to reflect the state rules, “putting state and local law enforcement of these protections on the same page,” Richie says. Now there are buffer zones of 16 feet for inactive burrows and 33 feet for active ones, mitigation requirements for destroyed burrows, and fines starting at $150 for violations. What’s more, city-code officers have the authority to enforce the regulations, so they don’t have to rely on the state to cite property owners for infractions.

Richie quit the city in 2015, but her legacy lives on through Owl Watch. When she retired, Jean Hall, whom Richie recruited as an owl-monitoring volunteer in 2012, worked with Audubon of the Western Everglades to launch the program. Around the time Owl Watch formed, Smith, Boughton, and Rose were just beginning to look at the owls. “We were just in a holding pattern until Alli got here,” Hall says of owl monitoring on Marco. Smith brought science—methodical research, data-based knowledge—that Hall and many others here hope can help safeguard the island’s owls.

Now they have a shot. This year 241 pairs of Burrowing Owls nested on Marco Island, up from 193 last year, and 79 percent of those duos fledged at least one chick. In all, there were 563 fledglings—the highest number since Owl Watch began. Those birds are living with humans, and the owl lovers are preventing Athene cunicularia floridana from disappearing on Marco, or even sliding into the vortex of extinction on the Florida peninsula. Such fate could befall as many as a million species on the planet now at risk, according to a recent and chilling United Nations report—all suffering from the explosion in human population and too little concern.

The lack of concern, at least, does not pervade Marco, where residents are determined to give Burrowing Owls a future. Less than two weeks after the death of the fledglingits siblings were out and flying, learning how to become their own providers. Passersby and drivers slowed to study the young birds, delighting in the progress of the next generation of Marco Island’s owls.

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You can support Burrowing Owl work on Marco Island through Audubon of the Western Everglades’ Adopt an Owl program.

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