On June 13th, Alli Smith of the Audubon of the Western Everglades (AWE) and project manager and biologist for Marco’s Owl Watch Program led an Owl Tour of 5+ burrowing owl sites outside of Mackle Park. A group of 11 owl enthusiasts walked the neighborhood checking out how the owls are doing.
For its March 2020 burrowing owl season kick–off meeting, 80+ owl watch monitors attended and with almost 400+ burrowing sites around Marco, everyone was excited to get started.
It is mid-June and the rainy season is in full swing. The most frequent question asked during the tour was: “How are the owls managing with all that rain?” According to Alli, the season started a bit early this year and by the time the rains came, the young owls were able to fly to higher ground with their parents and some even dug or found new burrows.
Another common question: “How can you tell a male owl from a female owl?” Alli replied that it’s usually difficult unless you see the pair together. Female owls spend most of their time in the burrow sitting on the eggs and may appear darker compared to the male owl that sits outside the burrow with lighter feathers.
Alli also reported that at last count, the burrowing owl population is down 22 pairs—which is totally normal. Last year, the burrowing owl population had 242 pairs.
Why Are Burrowing Owls Threatened?
According to Alli, urban development is by far the biggest threat to burrowing owls both in Marco. Burrowing owls need open spaces to dig their burrows and open spaces are quickly disappearing.
Alli also added, “We do not have an idea of how many burrowing owls are in the entire state. Cape Coral and Marco Island have the two largest populations of burrowing owls. Banding the burrowing owls will help provide some of the answers. We can learn how long they live, where do they move after the young leave the nest, how many chicks do they have in their lifetime.”
Alli also shared another fascinating feature of Marco’s burrowing owls. The typical burrowing owl has bright yellow eyes, but lately, black–eyed owls, speckled eyes, brown and even green–eyed owls have been spotted in the Marco Island population.
Alli Smith is not sure what is causing these variations in eye coloration—could it be due to inbreeding? Marco’s owls don’t migrate and stay close to their home—one is led to believe that there might be a lot of inbreeding. Another pair was spotted with one yellow and one black eye.
With summer rains, most of the burrow sites in Marco Island are now in need of trimming so there is a need for additional weedwhackers. All the trimmers are volunteers working from July – February, so Owl Watch is looking for a donation of a heavy-duty gas-powered trimmer. If you are able to help, please reach out to OwlWatchMarco@gmail.com.