Where Burrowing Owls Are Your Neighbors

On Florida's Marco Island, families of the small owls live among the locals, who keep a close eye on the birds to ensure they will always feel welcome.

My first encounter with the owls of Marco Island came more than 15 years ago. I was walking down a quiet residential street on this heavily developed barrier island that lies just south of Naples and north of the Everglades. Off to my left, a phalanx of beachfront condos loomed over the Gulf of Mexico. Palm trees rustled in the February breeze, and the bougainvillea blooming in the yards drew my gaze.

When I glanced back down the sidewalk, I found my way blocked by a small owl. I stopped, a bit shocked. I knew Marco Island had a robust population of Burrowing Owls—round-headed, long-legged raptors the size of beverage cans—but I hadn’t expected to find one contesting my passage.

I stared. The owl glared. Finally it flew a few yards away into the adjacent vacant lot, landing on a T-shaped wooden perch beside its burrow, which was roped off knee-high like a miniature museum exhibit.

I have been studying owls for nearly a quarter-century, and I am not used to losing a staring contest with a five-ounce owl, in the middle of the day, on a public sidewalk, in the heart of a city. But the Burrowing Owls of Marco are a breed apart. Thoroughly suburbanized, hundreds of pairs occupy burrows dug in empty lots, front yards, strip-mall parking lots, and highway medians across this 24-square-mile island. They are so habituated to humans—more than 16,000 full-time residents, swelling to 40,000 in winter—that such close encounters are the norm. A Marco Island owl doesn’t back down from much, and certainly not a pasty-pale winter tourist like me.

As I passed the owl, it didn’t budge, didn’t even spare me a backward glance. “Nuthin’ to see here, bub,” it seemed to say. “Keep movin’.”

On a planet where wildlife seems so often to be in full retreat, the owls of Marco Island are a pugnacious exception. And this city—where, not long ago, property owners and developers routinely drove over nest holes, crushing the occupants just to be rid of them—has embraced the brazen interlopers. Now they’re the focus of a first-of-its-kind safe-harbor program, a partnership between Audubon, the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the city, that provides financial incentives and some legal protections to homeowners who welcome owls. If successful, the new initiative may cement the future of these extraordinary urban raptors.

On a warm, breezy April morning, as wind gusts toss the palm fronds, Alli Smith has begun a round of nest checks before it gets too hot. Smith is the staff biologist for Owl Watch, a program led by Audubon of the Western Everglades (AWE), and the owls are also the subjects of her graduate studies. But even after several years of daily contact, the novelty hasn’t worn off. “It’s like every owl is the first one,” Smith tells me. “I said hello to the owls this morning before I said hello to Jean and Lin.”

She’s referring to Jean Hall and Lin Taylor, two of the more than 80 Owl Watch volunteers. Like Smith the two women are wearing protective face masks and social distancing as they hammer PVC stakes in the ground and begin roping off the nest—a nest that would, anywhere else in the world, be in a rather startling location. A pair has dug a burrow under the edge of a wide macadam parking lot that hosts a huge weekly farmer’s market, behind a strip mall and next to a supermarket along four-lane-wide Collier Boulevard, the main drag through town. Wilderness this is not.

Burrowing Owls are a wide-ranging species, found across the West, from the Canadian border into Mexico, as well as much of South America and the Caribbean. The Florida birds, along with those in the Bahamas, belong to a distinct, nonmigratory subspecies, Athene cunicularia floridana, which is smaller and more darkly pigmented than its western counterpart. The owls were once abundant on the natural, fire-maintained prairies of the southern and central parts of Florida, but as previously forested land was cleared for agriculture and development, they spread north and toward both coasts.

They reached Florida’s Gulf coast in the mid-20th century, when Marco was still a sleepy hamlet. In 1962, however, developers bought the island and laid out plans for a massive resort community: tens of thousands of single-family homes and condo units, along with hotels, marinas, golf courses, and recreational areas. Marco boomed, and, in 1997, residents voted to incorporate as the City of Marco Island. That meant a state-mandated comprehensive plan and, for the first time, an environmental specialist employed by the city, Nancy Richie.

Richie knew there were Burrowing Owls on the island, but soon realized that despite being listed by the state as a species of special concern, “no one was really protecting them,” she says. She quickly found that 7 of the 10 known burrows had been bulldozed out of existence. In those days, she says, Marco was not the owl-friendly place it has since become: “I heard a lot of shop talk like, ‘Oh yeah, when we see an owl on the property, we just back up over it.’  ” Even when someone bothered to obtain a permit to remove a burrow, Richie says, the state usually granted permission with no requirements for mitigation—or, often, without even checking to see whether owls and their chicks were occupying a nest before the bulldozers arrived.

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Within a couple of years, Richie had located nearly 100 burrows, almost all on vacant lots. With her boss’s bemused permission, she started demarcating a small protected area around each nest, using her own money for wooden stakes and flagging tape. She began recruiting a small cadre of volunteers, including Hall and Karol Tenace, to help with the endless weed-whacking necessary to keep the burrows free of encroaching vegetation. Owl awareness and regulation enforcement increased. While property owners could still develop their lots, they now had to wait until the end of the nesting season, after the chicks and adults had dispersed.

Richie left the city job in 2015 to start her own environmental-consulting company. Hall and Tenace stepped into the breach, but it wasn’t easy.

“We didn’t want the owls to be totally neglected,” Tenace told me. “But it got to be overwhelming. We basically paid for everything ourselves, and we were doing weed-whacking in July, August, September, October. It was never-ending. We just looked at each other one day and said, ‘We need help.’”

They approached AWE, which launched the formal Owl Watch program in 2016. Smith, who worked with Owl Watch while conducting research for her master’s degree, joined AWE as staff biologist and program manager this past January. Today her team knows of burrows on some 392 properties in the city—making it, along with Cape Coral to the north, one of the densest populations of Burrowing Owls anywhere, and all the more remarkable for the urbanized landscapes they inhabit.

Volunteers post and monitor each site, tracking which territories are active and how many chicks each burrow fledges, while Smith bands as many of the adults and chicks as possible to track the birds after the breeding season. They have seen some movement—one banded owl wound up in Miami, almost a hundred miles across the Everglades—but they don’t yet know whether there is regular cross-pollination between coastal and ranchland populations, or if the city owls are essentially on their own.

Burrowing Owls have vanished from some parts of their former range in Florida, and the state listed them as a threatened species in 2017. Whether these urban populations could contribute to the long-term survival of the subspecies is an open question—one that Liz White Rose is tackling. Rose, a Ph.D. candidate who, like Smith, is studying with ornithologist Raoul Boughton at the University of Florida, is comparing the urban birds with rural owl populations on sprawling cattle ranches in south-central and southwestern Florida.

Urban owls, she’s found, live lives that are different and, in some ways, easier than their country counterparts. Both populations are primarily crepuscular, most active at dusk and dawn; while Burrowing Owls are up and about in daytime, that’s not when they do their serious hunting. But while rural owls hunt at both dawn and dusk, urban birds favor the period before dawn. “There could be lots of reasons,” Rose says. “Maybe there’s more food, or maybe they’re trying to avoid hotter times because of the urban heat-island effect, and it stays warmer later. Or it could be that they’re avoiding times of higher human activity—more people are out at 8 or 9 p.m. than are around at 4 or 5 a.m.”

Marco’s owls have made adjustments to their human neighbors, and it’s paid off. Rose has found that urban owls take plenty of nonnative prey—Mediterranean geckos, Cuban brown anoles, Cuban tree frogs—that are abundant in the lush, landscaped, irrigated yards on Marco and Cape Coral. On ranchland, the birds must move a lot to find food for their chicks, hunting the edges of wetlands, canals, and ditches, while urban owls can stay closer to home, benefiting from the well-stocked larder that a nearby yard represents. Overall, researchers have found the highest densities of Florida Burrowing Owls where development is heaviest. Because they inhabit such a stable, highly managed environment, urban birds are also more consistently productive, year to year, than those on ranchlands.

Yet urban development is a double-edged sword for Burrowing Owls. Yes, the hunting is easy. But the birds have to deal with cars and cats and other risks. And the vacant lots they prefer are disappearing. On Marco, close to 95 percent of all Burrowing Owl nests are located on empty parcels, which are a finite and rapidly disappearing resource. “Marco ultimately will be built out,” Richie warns. “I don’t know how many empty lots are left, but believe me, they’ll all be built on.”

A new initiative that launched this past winter aims to bridge the habitat gap. Modeled after federal safe-harbor programs, which provide some regulatory flexibility for property owners who encourage certain endangered species, it is the first state-level program of its kind in Florida, says Brad Cornell, AWE Southwest Florida policy associate. The program works in tandem with Owl Watch’s existing starter-burrow initiative and city policy. Under these programs, homeowners who allow Owl Watch volunteers to install burrows in their yards receive a $250 incentive payment from the city every year owls use the dwellings. If the manmade burrow attracts owls, and the owner later needs to remove it (for, say, a septic tank replacement), the state waives the hefty mitigation fee, and AWE provides Smith’s services as a certified biologist free of charge, saving the owner thousands of dollars.

“I thought it would be great if we started looking at ways to reward good behavior, other than just punishing bad behavior,” says city council vice-chair Jared Grifoni, whose wife and three kids are Owl Watch volunteers, and who proposed the incentive payments. “Owls are losing ground—vacant lots are being developed all the time, and we want to encourage an equilibrium between the owls and the human population.”

So far, there’s been no shortage of people willing to take on avian tenants.

There’s not much to a starter burrow, just an angled, foot-deep hole punched by the Owl Watch team through the immensely thick, heavily irrigated lawn grass that grows here. “We sprinkle white sand on it so the apron looks like there’s been fresh digging, put up a perch, and that’s it,” Hall explains. Sometimes owls show up within hours, sometimes weeks, sometimes never; nesting owls have used about a quarter of the 136 or so burrows dug so far (many prior to the safe-harbor program’s adoption).

In Andy Serafin’s case, Smith, Hall, and Tenace dug a starter burrow in his yard in the autumn of 2017. A pair showed up a few months later and, the following year, raised at least one chick. Serafin—who nicknamed the male owl Wes, in honor of his late brother, a well-known Chicago birder—loved to chat up curious passersby. The birds’ favorite perch was above the Serafins’ front door. “They’d crap all over the porch area, so I had to clean that up every day,” Serafin says. “My wife would complain about that, but now that they’re gone, she misses them.”

Even with the safe-harbor program, not everyone embraces the owls. Earlier this year, a local realtor was sentenced to six months’ probation, a $200 fine, and 75 hours of community service after pleading no contest to placing mothballs in a burrow in 2019 in an apparent attempt to force out the occupants. What made that incident unusual, Smith and Hall agree, was that a security camera caught the act; in most cases where burrows are destroyed or owls are harmed, a lack of clear evidence hamstrings conservation officers.

On the balance, though, the community has been overwhelmingly supportive. “We had some concerns about drawing a threatened species into people’s front yards, but it’s worked out really, really well,” Smith says. “We think getting owls in people’s yards where they’re actually wanted is a whole lot better than having them live in vacant lots where they’re eventually going to be kicked out.”

The experts I talked with were cautiously optimistic about the long-term prospects for Marco Island owls. Historically, the birds have rarely nested in yards on Marco Island. Smith thinks it’s too difficult for them to dig through the dense lawn turf, though no one is certain; undeveloped lots may provide more open sight lines that the owls prefer. “I don’t see all the owls jumping into these starter burrows when we still have empty, more suitable lots,” Richie says. But if the safe-harbor program and starter burrows can begin to shift a significant number of owl pairs (which tend to return to the same nest every year) from empty lots to more permanent, reliable sites, that would be a huge plus for the birds’ future.

AWE’s Cornell also sees a larger significance in the safe-harbor program. “That a city, a conservation nonprofit, and a state agency all could come to terms on something no one’s ever done before, I think speaks volumes about a new paradigm in an urban area,” he says. “We’re all banking on the idea that this could be a model for how we convince the growing Florida population to embrace conservation as sea-level rise and climate change threaten all these coastal areas like Marco Island.”

Smith agrees. “Down here, owls are thriving,” she says. “I love that they’re so tolerant. I know that a lot of species don’t have a great chance, but I think these guys have a shot, if we keep leaving them enough space.” She pointed to the local elementary school that Grifoni’s kids attend. A pair of owls nest beside the playground, where a number of children gather at recess every day to watch them.

“If a bunch of 8-year-olds can learn to live with the owls taking up space on their playground,” Smith says, “then the older people on Marco Island have no excuse.”


This story originally ran in the Summer 2020 issue as “Neighborhood Watch.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today

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