Life was going pretty well for the Snap family of burrowing owls.
Red and White, named for the colored identity tags on their legs, lived happily in a quiet gravel lot a few blocks from the Salt River in Phoenix. There were all kinds of prey to eat: insects buzzing overhead and ground squirrels and mice digging around in the gravel.
They lived in a burrow that ground squirrels had probably dug out before. Burrowing owls, close to the size of a soda can without their wings outstretched and weighing about as much of a stick of butter, can’t dig their own homes, but they can make minor adjustments when they move in.
And while burrowing owl habitat — massive tracts of land that cover almost the entire American West into Mexico, plus a sliver of South Florida — has receded in recent years due to human development, the Snaps were doing all right in Phoenix in the midst of an urban community.
People walking past the gravel lot on the way to a park by the Salt River could see Red, a male, and White, a female, swooping through the air at dusk and offering seemingly friendly head bobs while making eye-contact with pedestrians. Cowboys out on the prairie, according to the National Audubon Society, used to call burrowing owls “howdy birds” because they looked as though they nodded their heads in greeting.
But after a few years at the gravel lot, a local waste management firm took ownership and used the area as a dumping ground. It started on the side of the lot opposite the Snaps' burrow but kept creeping closer and closer, with bulldozers and other heavy-duty equipment traversing the area.
The Arizona Audubon Society had recruited volunteers to construct artificial burrows, made of five-gallon buckets and plastic piping, and installing them in wildlife refuges. Burrowing owls, unlike other owl species, live in groups on the ground. They prefer flat, arid land so they can look out of their burrows and see prey or predators at eye-level.
Students from New Mexico State wanted to track how well the owls liked the artificial burrows, and in spring 2016, began capturing owls living in natural and man-made dugouts and fitting them with radio transmitters (they look like little backpacks with wires sticking out) and colored ID tags to track their movement and burrow selection.
A year later, researchers tagged Red and White, who were still living in the gravel lot, though it was growing more precarious by the day. Eventually their burrow caved in beneath the weight of the trash piled on top of it.
Red and White survived and fled to a nearby man-made nest and, to researchers' delight, settled in well. Burrowing owls don’t mate for life, ornithologists say, but they do mate for “a long time.” Some owls have affairs and some leave their mates after a while in search of new ones. But even after the move, things looked good for the Snaps. Within months, they had an egg.
But something happened to the egg. Researches use a camera on a pole to see who is living in which nest and see how they’re getting on. They check the habitats once or twice a week. One day the egg was there; the next day, it wasn’t.
White took off for the old gravel lot, now a full-on dumping ground. Red split his time between the new nest and their old digs. Then White’s signal went silent. After a while, researchers concluded she was likely killed at the old gravel dugout. Days later, June 29, 2018, Red went missing, too.
The radio signal from the bird’s backpacks isn’t very strong. You have to be in a relatively close vicinity to a bird to pick up their radio signature. Researchers feared Red was killed, too, but held out hope that he’d simply gone to live somewhere else in search of a new mate. Burrowing owls do migrate, though the ones in Arizona tend to live there year-round, according to the Audubon Society.
Seven months went by without picking up Red’s radio transmitter. The study on owl-relocation ended. No one lives at the gravel lot anymore.
But last weekend, a concerned hiker emailed the Arizona Audubon Society with a photo of a burrowing owl with a wire sticking out of its back.
“I think there’s something wrong with this owl,” he said.
“No, we know that owl,” wrote back Cathy Wise, Arizona Audubon’s education director.
Red turned up not even half a mile away at the Rio Salado Restoration Habitat, a 600-acre parcel managed by the City of Phoenix where Audubon had installed 200 artificial burrows. Red is living in one of them now.
“I thought it was amazing,” Wise said in a phone interview. “I was distressed when the female left and went back to the trash heap. I think all of us at Audubon at our office were rejoicing when the pair finally left that area because it was so dangerous. There was heavy equipment all the time and the trash was getting closer and closer to their burrow. You could tell it wasn’t a good situation. And then we she left and he left, you just thought that the worst had happened.”
Instead, it seems, Red Snap was just getting his life back together. Rio Salado has a healthy population of owls. The prey isn’t as varied; there are mostly only desert iguanas to eat, which takes some getting used to. But there aren’t any trucks or bulldozers rolling through or garbage piling up.
It’s a superb new home for a superb owl.
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