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Burrowing Owls Need Prairie Dogs

Dear Bird Folks,

I’m a seventh grader in D.L. Beckwith Middle School in Rehoboth Massachusetts and have been reading the book “Hoot” about Burrowing Owls. I was excited when I read your article about Burrowing Owls on the Cape! I had always thought that they lived in Florida and out west. Could you please tell me more about your owls? Are they still there now? I am doing a project with some of my friends on Burrowing Owls and was wondering if I could see the owls?

-Kelly, Rehoboth, MA


Oops. Hi Kelly,

Funny thing about those Cape Cod owls. They need a bit of an explanation. But before I explain, I have to tell you that this has to stay just between you and me. If the truth on those owls gets out, I could be in a bit of trouble. Also, after you read this answer you have to promise to destroy this information. Promise? Okay, here’s the deal. There are no Burrowing Owls on Cape Cod. The article that you read was the one that came out last April 1st, aka April Fool’s Day. The winters on Cape Cod can be long and dull, so every year I write a phony column that tries to spice things up a little. You were not the only one who took the story seriously. Many people around here believed it and some are still looking for the owls that I claimed were living under a field of giant invisible wind turbines hidden in the dunes of Provincetown. I don’t think they are ever going to find them, but the fresh air will do them good.

I’m glad you are reading “Hoot.” It’s a pretty good book about protecting a bird that very much needs our protection. Burrowing Owls, as you correctly stated, are found in the western part of the U. S., with a separate population living amongst the retirees in Florida. Just as their name implies, they nest in underground burrows. It is their chosen nesting habitat that has caused their population to drop in recent years.

Just as bluebirds depend on old woodpecker holes to nest in, out west the owls need ground dwelling mammals to dig their burrows for them. Woodchucks, ground squirrels and prairie dogs are excellent diggers and unintentionally create wonderful owl homes. The problem is that the cattle lovers of the world are not big fans of the super-cute prairie dogs. Their dumb old cows constantly get hurt by stumbling into the dog’s holes. The cow people respond with poison, traps, fire and of course guns (there always has to be guns), in an effort to get rid of the dogs. Many owls fall victim to the poison and traps that are meant for the prairies dogs or ground squirrels. The owls that aren’t killed by these attacks are still in trouble because they no longer have a place to nest. The mammals that the owls depend upon for their burrows are being wiped out.

The owls in Florida aren’t as dependent on mammals because they will dig their own burrows, if they can find a place to dig. Unfortunately, much of Florida has been overtaken by shopping centers, pancake restaurants and shuffleboard courts. Even when the owls are able to find a place to dig their nest holes, they are in danger of being killed by uncontrolled cats, dogs and stray shuffleboard discs. The news isn’t all bad for Burrowing Owls. In recent years several groups have organized to help with their protection. Some farmers have set aside plots of land for the owls. After all, it is in the farmer’s best interests to attract the owls, for they chow down lots of crop-eating insects and rodents. In some locations man-made burrows have been successfully used to attract nesting owls. While most other owls are nocturnal and shy away from people, Burrowing Owls are often diurnal and are very tolerant of us creepy humans. You can see them out during the day as they stand in front of their burrows, which may be in the middle of a cemetery, golf course or playground. The young owls are out in the morning, while the older owls don’t come out of their burrows until later in the day, when it’s time for shuffleboard.

I’m sorry to disappoint you about the Cape’s owls Kelly. That article was meant to spark some life into sleepy Cape Cod bird watchers, not to deceive any hard working seventh graders. While I’m at it, I have another confession to make. I didn’t really read the book “Hoot.” I honestly bought the book, but when I saw that it had 292 pages and no pictures, I decided to see the movie instead. But this time the joke was on me and my wallet. It cost me $9.50 to get into the movie, plus another $24.00 for a small popcorn. You were wiser to read the book.