By Andrew Stuart
They’re diminutive, less than a foot tall, but their claim to the open spaces and arid plains of the West runs as deep as the bisons’. They’re skilled hunters in the prairie night.
Burrowing owls live in holes created by other creatures. They rely most on abandoned prairie dog holes, as sanctuary from predators, as nesting places.
Our region is home to year-round burrowing owl populations – they’re glimpsed occasionally in daylight, in pastures or on fenceposts. But new research shows West Texas is also a critical hub for owls from very far away. The research tells a stunning story.
David Johnson is director of the Global Owl Project. Recently, his research took him to Dell City, Texas.
“With the trip down here, we’ve got three birds that we want to check on,” Johnson said. “I think two of them have actually wintered here, so we want to investigate what the place looks like.”
Using “geolocators,” and tiny owl “backpacks” with solar-powered satellite transmitters, Johnson and his colleagues have tracked owl migration since 2010. The birds he’s followed to the Dell City area came from as far as Saskatchewan.
Winters in West Texas are mild enough. But Northern Great Plains winters are too severe for a burrowing owl to endure. Owls there pair up in early summer. When their young have fledged, they abandon their nesting burrows. They spend a month bulking up on insects. Then, in early October, they all leave.
Flying at night, at an average of 30 mph, they journey singly. They travel staggering distances. A few – like these Dell City-area birds – winter in the borderlands. But most fly far into Mexico – to the Sea of Cortez, the highlands near Acapulco.
And their destinations aren’t vague. They make “beelines” to the very holes they occupied the previous winter.
“You go back again next year, and there they are: same bird, same hole,” Johnson said. “They have to memorize it, and they have memorize the way back and forth. They not only memorize it – it’s a straight line. We don’t give them enough credit. We couldn’t find our way that easily.”
Why make such epic journeys? The migratory owls may have to “overfly” their resident kin, who’ve claimed prime southern plains territory.
Something jumped out about the migrations. Whether the owls set out from Nebraska, South Dakota or Alberta, their paths converge in a “funnel” over a particular stretch of the Llano Estacado in West Texas. In their journeys, owls generally pause just a day at a time, between night flights. But here, they linger.
“The main stop, and often the first stop, is here in Texas,” Johnson said. “You can imagine a bird from Canada – short wings, a nocturnal bird. Something’s very special about this place. They’ll stop for 30 hours or a week or sometimes two weeks, and then off they go again, into Mexico, and they spread out all over Mexico.”
This “special area” extends from Lubbock to Amarillo, and west from those two cities about 70 miles. It’s an area of sandhills. Playas – shallow, ephemeral lakes – may sustain owl prey here, like insects and rodents. For now, it’s unclear why this part of West Texas is so attractive as a “layover.”
“We know it is important,” Johnson said, “but why is it so important? And in the end, the discussion is, what are we going to do about it? If it’s such a valuable place, what is being done for conservation, to protect these places?”
Burrowing owls have declined dramatically in recent decades, largely due to the decimation wrought on prairie dogs. The owls are endangered in Canada. They nest successfully there. That means their decline is tied to their migratory and wintering locations. Conserving those habitats is key to their survival.
Johnson’s Dell City visit ultimately had a downbeat cast. Searching for hours with receivers, he located two transmitters – but the owls were gone, likely victims of predation.
Johnson’s research hints at the complexity of owl behavior. It’s not only their ability to return annually to specific burrows 3,000 miles from their nesting spots, but their social interactions, even their grasp of prairie-dog communications.
As poet William Blake wrote, “How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?”
Traditional societies took for granted the capabilities – and the intelligence – of non-human creatures. Increasingly, science seems to be pointing us back to that view.