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Conservation first in Alberta as Calgary Zoo releases 15 Burrowing Owls

The Calgary Zoo has taken a significant step forward to bolster the endangered burrowing owl population in Alberta. This May, 15 owls were released into the wild; the first time for this species in the province. This marks a monumental milestone for the inaugural year of the head-starting project with partners Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), and Alberta Environment and Parks.

“Reversing the decline of endangered species such as burrowing owls is important, but not easy. It requires persistent innovation coupled with courageous action through sound partnerships,” says Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Director of Conservation and Science, Calgary Zoo. “I am so pleased with the cooperative, action-oriented nature of this project; for the first time we are saving individual owls from the trials of long-distance migration, reinforcing a population, and determining effectiveness through satellite-tracking across three countries. By using science, I believe we can make a positive difference for this cherished Canadian species over the years to come.”

This ground-breaking project involved gathering 15 young owls from the wild (eight females and seven males), who had the least chance of survival in the spring of 2016. The young were transported to the Calgary Zoo’s Animal Health Centre and then cared for over the winter at the zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre (DWCC). Working with Federal and Provincial field staff, this spring the zoo helped to identify locations for eight artificial nest burrows in which the seven pairs and single female owl would be placed. The one-year old owls were outfitted with satellite transmitters and were then introduced into their new burrows at release sites, a couple of weeks prior to being released back to the wild to hopefully bolster Alberta’s population.

After being released in pairs, the owls settled into their burrows, mated, and all seven pairs have laid eggs. It is hoped that these offspring will hatch and join their parents’ fall migration to Mexico or the southern United States.

“Through our previous research on wild owls, we’ve learned that the main problem for the population appears to occur between the time that owlets fledge from their nests and when they should be returning as one-year olds to breed back in Canada,” says Dr. Troy Wellicome, Senior Species at Risk Biologist, Canadian Wildlife Service. “The head-starting project is artificially circumventing that stage of high mortality and low site-fidelity, by taking the owlets into captivity and releasing them directly back into Alberta sites the following year to hopefully breed in the wild as first-year adults.”

Wild populations of burrowing owls have declined by an astounding 90 per cent since the 1990’s and the population continues to deteriorate. These owls are listed as endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) due to significant declines across their range in Canada’s southern prairies.

“Given the challenges presented by this long-distance migrant that spends half of each year south of the Canadian border, we are optimistic that this innovative conservation method help us to make a difference for this vital species in our province,” says Brandy Downey, Senior Species At Risk Biologist, Alberta Environment and Parks. “We are fortunate to have such a wealth of expertise in Alberta, all joining together to enable the conservation of the burrowing owl.”

The burrowing owl head-starting project is the first of its kind in western Canada. The second year of the project will continue in 2017 with a new set of owlets gathered this summer. As a leader in wildlife conservation with a proven track record of protecting imperiled Canadian species, the Calgary Zoo is well positioned to make an impact.

Calgary Zoo