When a burrowing owl prefers the scaffolding

By the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Finding a western burrowing owl perched on scaffolding at a construction site is rare because they are ground dwellers typically found in grassland areas. ©John Cleckler/USFWS

Everyone has heard the saying “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” but what a picture does not provide is the backstory — details about the who, what, where, when and why.

John Cleckler is a fish and wildlife biologist working in the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office. Here he tells us about a photo he recently took of a burrowing owl that was hanging out at a Sacramento, California shopping mall.

This shopping mall under renovation was an odd site to find a western burrowing owl. ©John Cleckler/USFWS

In January, I was contacted by one of the board of directors from Effie Yeaw Nature Center about a western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) that was seen perched within a mall reconstruction project. I began checking in on the owl on my way to work for the two week period that it lingered.

It was a strange situation having a rare grassland species so deep into an urban area. It’s a ground dweller and not typically seen perching in trees or, in this case, on scaffolding. It did not seem deterred by the activities of the workers with whom it shared the scaffolding.

I would find the owl perching on either the scaffolding or an adjacent palm tree—but I did not see any nearby burrows, open pipes or other feature that it could have used for cover. The construction foreman commented that the owl typically relocated to a nearby perch if the crew got within 10 feet. The owl seemed to favor the location and perhaps it was a good place to take shelter from the intense storms that it weathered during its stay.

I reached out to a contact at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and she suggested it was likely just passing through. A couple of concerned and interested citizens joined in on the monitoring. Eventually, the owl moved on—still leaving us scratching our heads about its short stay in a Sacramento suburb.

ꟷJohn Cleckler

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a Strategic Partner of The Wildlife Society.


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