Urban Avian Satisficing

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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

Thanks to Audubon’s great team for this story of urban adaptation:

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.

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Biologist Allison Smith’s car serves as a mobile workspace for monitoring owls on Marco. She temporarily transfers birds she captures to the back, where she weighs, measures, and bands them before returning them to their burrows. Photo: Karine Aigner

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.

Read the whole story here.

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