Explore southern Manitoba and you will find some feathery friends trying to make a comeback.
With help from the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program (MBORP) and the Assiniboine Park Zoo, the endangered burrowing owls are nesting and making Manitoba their home again.
"We’re reintroducing burrowing owls back into the wild population and trying to encourage a growth in the wild population in Manitoba, because it is quite dire," said Alexandra Froese, program manager of the MBORP. "The species right now is very endangered in the
The MBORP started as Froese’s thesis project for her master’s degree at the University of Winnipeg. Once she graduated, she continued the program to prevent losing the tiny bird in Manitoba altogether with a partnership with the Assiniboine Park Zoo.
"The young of the year get held over at the zoo for the winter, then that gives them a better chance of survival at the beginning of the year," said Dr. Stephen Petersen, head of conservation and research at the Assiniboine Park Zoo. "Then they are more likely to migrate south and come back to Manitoba."
Burrowing Owls are one of the smallest owls in the world, weighing less than a pound. The owls can live up to eight years and they nest in abandoned burrows dug by mammals such as groundhogs. They are native to the Prairie provinces, the U.S., and Mexico.
The burrowing owls are federally and provincially listed as endangered across the Prairie provinces.
According to the MBORP’s website, mborp.com, their numbers declined from 3,000 pairs in 1978 to just 400 in 2004. In Manitoba, it declined from 76 pairs to only four.
Petersen said because of flooding and developing farmland in the prairies, the owls’ population has taken a hit.
"If you think about what the prairies should look like or did look like when there was bison roaming over it, the prairies are one of the most impacted and changed habitats we have and they’ve suffered for it," said Petersen. "For a few years, as far as we know, they were extirpated from the province. There were no burrowing owls breeding in the province."
Froese believes setting up burrows and helping the owls develop will boost their populations and help them succeed in life.
"Recovery is a slow process, but it can work," said Froese. "Give us a decade of doing these types of releases and a handful of years without flooding and we really do think this species could not only return to Manitoba, but have a self-sustaining population."
This year the program has five nesting pairs, and 44 eggs laid. Though the young have a 60 to 70% survival rate, Froese said the males this year are great providers of prey, bringing back ground squirrels, deer mice, and even a northern redbelly snake to their burrows.