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Global Warming

Urban Flight

Biologist Mike Balistreri pads along the sandy bottom of an arroyo in Rio Rancho, a development that sprang from the desert 40 years ago and is now New Mexico’s fourth most populous city. From the terrace above his head, subdivisions stretch in every direction. He points to where floodwaters from increased development have sloughed off a chunk of the arroyo wall. “There were a couple of burrows that hadn’t been washed away,” he says, “and I think they are still active.” Finally, he spots a burrowing owl. Buff-colored and about eight inches tall, it’s squatting on a lip that juts out from the side of the arroyo. The birds, which make their homes in the abandoned burrows of prairie dogs and ground squirrels, are remarkably tolerant of human activity—they have even been found nesting under sidewalks and graveyard headstones.

When Balistreri, owner of Albuquerque-based Avian Consulting Services, a private firm specializing in bird and bat studies, first surveyed this patch of land two years ago, he found some 20 active burrows. Today he has found three.

Burrowing owls are protected in the United States under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—but that law protects burrows only while eggs or fledglings are in the nest. Once the birds migrate away, the burrows can legally be destroyed. Since the 1940s, as more and more short-grass prairie has been plowed under, the owls have disappeared from portions of their range in the western half of the United States and Canada. Experts say, however, that it’s possible that owls that once summered in Canada are becoming full-time residents of the southwestern United States and Mexico as irrigation and agriculture in the desert have made food—insects and small rodents—more plentiful.

But as rapid development in the Sun Belt displaces owl burrows, it just might be that the owls are being enticed to stick around permanently, only to find that the desert along the fringes of cities may not be such a good place to set down roots after all.

Bill Howe, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, has watched burrowing owl populations decline in urban areas. He is not confident they are finding new places to live once their burrows are destroyed—but he’s not giving up on the birds either. Instead he and other biologists, including Balistreri, are using a “working group” to raise awareness of the owls, determine their actual populations, and encourage landowners and developers in New Mexico to accommodate urban birds.—Laura Paskus
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