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Recovery Strategy for the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) in Canada (Proposed)

2. Recovery

2.1 Rationale for Recovery Feasibility

Recovery of Burrowing Owls within Canada is definitely feasible. Indeed, with appropriate environmental conditions, local populations have increased more than 170% between consecutive years. Certain characteristics of the species contribute to this potential for rapid population increase, including high mobility and the production of large clutches. Although the detailed habitat needs of the Burrowing Owl are currently unknown, the general habitat requirements (open grassland with burrows) are met by the currently available habitat. Numerous recovery actions have been suggested for Burrowing Owls, and several are being implemented with success. Addressing knowledge gaps and narrowing the list of factors potentially explaining the population decline will provide further focus and efficiencies for these recovery efforts. Overall, a high level of effort and cooperation will be required by governments, non-government organizations, industry, stakeholders, landowners, and the general public to control potential threats, conserve habitat, and share responsibilities for the conservation and recovery of this species in North America (Commission for Environmental Cooperation 2005). Despite the high level of effort and cooperation that is required, the actions necessary to achieve recovery of this species appear to be achievable using a variety of existing recovery techniques.

2.2 Recovery Goal

The long-term recovery goal for the Burrowing Owl is to reverse the population decline in Canada and maintain1 a self-perpetuating, well-distributed2 population of at least 3000 breeding pairs3 within the four western provinces.

2.3 Recovery Objectives

  • Identify factors associated with annual population changes.
  • Identify and implement protocols that mitigate factors affecting population declines.4
  • Maintain, increase, and enhance Burrowing Owl breeding and foraging habitat.
  • Optimize nesting success, fledging rate, and survival of Burrowing Owls on the Canadian breeding grounds.5
  • Reestablish wild breeding populations of Burrowing Owls within their historical range in British Columbia and their 1993 range in Manitoba.6
  • Encourage management, conservation, and research on Burrowing Owls, and the habitats they use, during all seasons in the United States and Mexico.7
  • Engage, support, and communicate with land holders and land managers about actions to improve Burrowing Owl populations and habitat in their local areas.

2.4 Approaches Recommended to Address Threats and Meet Recovery Objectives

Refer to Table 1 for a list of approaches recommended to address threats and meet recovery objectives.

PriorityObjective No.ThreatsBroad strategyRecommended approaches to address threats and meet recovery objectives
High2, 3, 6, 7Habitat modificationHabitat protection
Habitat restoration
  • On those sites deemed suitable for owls, protect grassland through conservation easements or other forms of voluntary or paid agreements
  • Reduce damage to grassland habitat that results from oil and gas exploration and extraction (e.g., place developments on cultivated land rather than grassland)
  • Convert cropland into grassland, especially at or near known Burrowing Owl nesting sites
  • Manage against shrub/brush encroachment on historically open grasslands
  • Cooperate with broad grassland conservation initiatives, including the Prairie Conservation Action Plan, Grasslands Conservation Council of British Columbia, South Okanagan–Similkameen Conservation Program, Prairie Habitat Joint Venture's North American Bird Conservation Initiative, and North American Conservation Action Plans for Burrowing Owl and Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Commission for Environmental Cooperation)
  • Cooperate with agencies in the United States and Mexico to help ensure the conservation of habitat used for breeding, migration, and wintering
  • Further characterize habitat associations for owls during the breeding and non-breeding seasons, and identify any unoccupied suitable owl habitat
High1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7Decreased preyHabitat management
Restoration Stewardship
  • Improve habitats for small mammals, using best available knowledge and beneficial management practices (delayed haying of ditches, reduced grazing in wet meadows or wetland edges, etc.)
  • Convert cropland into grassland to encourage foraging (e.g., regrassing the banks of watercourses)
  • Maintain at least modest availability of insect prey by being strategic with insect spraying on native grassland, roadsides, and crops near potential owl sites
  • Improve our knowledge of the relationship between diet, reproduction, and habitat characteristics around nests and roost sites
  • Use radio-tracking to improve our knowledge of nocturnal foraging habitat use, particularly by males during the breeding season, but also by owls during the non-breeding season
  • Study the effects of grazing or haying on foraging habitats and availability of both nocturnal and diurnal prey
High2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7Loss of burrowsHabitat and species management
  • Discourage the extermination of burrowing mammals (ground squirrels, badgers, prairie dogs) in Canada, the United States, and Mexico
  • Across North America, encourage the reintroduction of burrowing mammals to sites where they have been exterminated
  • Where local burrowing mammal populations cannot yet be reestablished, install artificial nest burrows as a temporary measure
High2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7Increased predationHabitat management
Species management
  • Allow avian and mammalian predation pressure to return to lower, historical levels in Burrowing Owl nesting areas by managing habitat and anthropogenic nest/den structures
  • Discourage tree planting or construction of artificial structures that encourage the presence of larger hawks and owls in areas where those species were historically absent
  • Occasionally use predator-proof artificial nest burrows, but only where warranted by high local predation pressures
  • Determine whether habitat fragmentation is associated with higher levels of predation
  • Analyze existing data to see if nest predation increases probability/distance of future dispersal
High5VariousHabitat management
  • In Manitoba, manage formerly occupied grassland sites (through habitat protection, stewardship, conservation of burrowing mammals, control of environmental contaminants, etc.) to encourage Burrowing Owls to reoccupy sites via immigration from wild populations in adjoining states/provinces (De Smet 1997; K. De Smet, pers. comm. 2006)
  • In British Columbia, use these same approaches but also augment the small wild population by annually releasing captive-bred Burrowing Owls to breed and fledge wild young at release sites (Leupin in review)
Medium2, 4, 7VehiclesEducation Outreach
  • Reduce owl mortalities from vehicles by posting speed limit signs near nest sites
  • Produce communication documents that teach operators of heavy machinery (used for cultivating, haying, mowing, and road construction/maintenance) how to recognize Burrowing Owl nests and avoid destroying them
  • Reduce the effects of industrial disturbance
Medium1, 2, 4, 6, 7Environmental contaminantsOutreach
Stewardship Monitoring
  • Discourage the use of insecticides in the vicinity of Burrowing Owl nests and wintering sites
  • Use standardized protocols to collect/store Burrowing Owl carcasses and unhatched eggs for chemical analysis
  • Determine strychnine, lead, organochlorine, and anti-cholinesterase insecticide levels in blood, feathers, eggs, or carcasses
  • Determine lead and strychnine levels in ground squirrels scavenged by owls and cached in owl burrows
  • Determine potential for exposure of owls to environmental contaminants during all seasons
Low1, 7Inclement weatherResearch
  • Examine the influence of climate change on patterns of inclement weather (e.g., lengthy periods of excessive rain)
  • Compare the probabilities of nest flooding in native vs. tame pasture

2.5 Critical Habitat

2.5.1 Identification of the Species' Critical Habitat

Critical habitat cannot currently be defined for the Burrowing Owl in Canada because of inadequate knowledge of the majority of owl locations, a limited understanding of owl habitat associations during breeding at both landscape and home-range levels (see section 1.7, Knowledge Gaps), and because Burrowing Owls do not exhibit high site-fidelity to their nesting burrows. Critical habitat will be identified in action plans, by 31 December 2009, with input from the National Burrowing Owl Recovery Team and provincial Recovery Implementation Groups.

2.5.2 Schedule of Studies to Identify Critical Habitat

A schedule of studies required to aid in the identification of critical habitat is outlined in Table 2.

Table 2. General schedule of studies required to identify critical habitat for Burrowing Owls in Canada

Description of Research Activity
Start DateCompletion Date
Targeted surveys, within generally suitable habitat types and areas of past sightings, to better identify the species' distribution and potential concentrations1987Ongoing
Estimate demographic parameters (e.g., productivity, survival, dispersal) in relation to habitat types/conditions20032007
Conduct breeding season habitat mapping and habitat association modelling, based on nesting habitat associations and productivity, to inform the definition of critical habitat20032007
Conduct nocturnal foraging studies to determine home-range sizes and habitat use vs. prey and habitat types or conditions, to inform the definition of critical habitat19992009
Refine critical habitat definition, incorporating any new information as needed2010Ongoing
 as required

2.6 Potential Effects on Other Species

Habitat management for Burrowing Owls will positively affect many other prairie species, including other species at risk. Burrowing Owls appear to require a diversity of grassland habitat conditions for nesting and foraging. If a healthy mosaic of grasslands is maintained, in combination with effective grazing and haying management practices, Burrowing Owls will be only one of many native prairie species that benefit. Specifically, protection and proper management of native prairie will also benefit other listed species, such as Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii), Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis), Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus), swift fox (Vulpes velox), Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), and black-tailed prairie dog. Burrowing Owl breeding and survival are influenced by the availability of burrows. Therefore, Burrowing Owl recovery actions encourage the conservation of populations of native burrowing mammals, such as badgers, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and marmots, which would also benefit several other wildlife species that prey on these burrowing mammals (e.g., Ferruginous Hawks) or use their burrows. In specific local situations, owl recovery may include predator exclusion from nest burrows (via artificial nest burrows) and habitat management near Burrowing Owl nesting areas to discourage predators that have increased above historical levels because of positive associations with agricultural activities (e.g., Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus, Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis, striped skunk, red fox, and coyote; Wellicome and Haug 1995). Thus, there are potentially negative effects on these common predatory species at Burrowing Owl management sites, but their overall population numbers will undoubtedly still remain high. Placement of hawk nesting substrates (natural or artificial) must also consider potential effects on nearby Burrowing Owls to allow for the concurrent management of Ferruginous Hawk and Burrowing Owl populations.

2.7 Statement of When One or More Action Plans Will Be Completed

Action plans compliant with the Species at Risk Act are scheduled for development by December 31, 2009, to cover jurisdictions within the range of the Burrowing Owl in Canada. The Recovery Plan for Burrowing Owl in Alberta has been published (Alberta Burrowing Owl Recovery Team 2005). In addition, a draft Recovery Action Plan for Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) has been prepared by the British Columbia Recovery Implementation Group (Leupin in review). Both of these plans will have to be reviewed for SARA compliancy if they are to serve as Action Plans under SARA.

1 Over a minimum 10-year period.

2 In the three Prairie provinces, the area covered by 95% of future owl locations should encompass the 1993 range (see Figure 2). In British Columbia, Burrowing Owls should be distributed within their historical range in the Thompson/Nicola and Okanagan regions.

3 The 1995 National Recovery Plan (Hjertaas et al. 1995) had the equivalent population recovery goal. The current goal for population size should be calculated as a three-year running average, with at least 30 breeding pairs in British Columbia.

4 Known and potential factors are discussed in detail in sections 1.4.2, 1.5, and 1.6.

5 Refer to section 1.4.2 for a detailed discussion.

6 See Leupin (in review) for criteria to assess reestablishment in British Columbia. See Figure 2 for Manitoba range in 1993.

7 See North American Conservation Action Plan for the Western Burrowing Owl (Commission for Environmental Cooperation 2005).