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NMSU Professor, Students Keep an Eye on Owls

LAS CRUCES - A research project at New Mexico State University has found that burrowing owls live in many unusual locations in Las Cruces: alongside irrigation canals, under a headstone at the Masonic Cemetery, and in a section of pipe near the athletic track at Las Cruces High School. And in one case, they are literally underfoot - one pair lived in a burrow beneath a sidewalk leading to a busy hair salon.

New Mexico State University assistant professor Martha Desmond, left, and NMSU seniors Lisa Mason of El Paso and Melissa Castiano of Farmington examine the entrance to a burrowing owl nest in Las Cruces. (07/22/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

Now, NMSU students are able to track the progress of far more owls than before thanks to the people who contacted assistant professor Martha Desmond with locations across the city. Desmond, of NMSU's fishery and wildlife sciences department in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics, said researchers had been watching about 20 sites until this spring, when callers notified her of many others. This summer, researchers combined the list of known sites with the new ones, providing a more complete picture of the Las Cruces owl population.

Burrowing owls, also known as "howdy owls" due to their bobbing-head behavior when approached, are widespread in the West. The 9-inch birds are brown with white speckles and have long, unfeathered legs. They nest in burrows dug by ground squirrels and kangaroo rats, as well as drain pipes, natural cavities, disturbed sites, irrigation canals and urban areas.

One resident notified Desmond of a burrowing owl that lived nearby. It was nicknamed "Hedwig" after the character in "Harry Potter" books.

"Some people are very aware of them and very protective with their owls," Desmond said.

NMSU seniors Melissa Castiano of Farmington and Lisa Mason of El Paso watched the owls this summer, spending about 20 minutes each week at each location. They observed the nest site for the presence of adults, evidence of a nest and what stage the nest has reached.

"They look like baby penguins," Mason said as she peered through binoculars at a nest where chicks were in view. Mason, Castiano and Desmond traveled from nest to nest one morning early in June to record owl behavior. They used binoculars to get a look at the nest from a discrete distance.

An adult, probably the male, already was outside the burrow when the researchers arrived. Next, the female came out, followed by the whole family: nine chicks, an unusually large brood. They stretched their wings in the bright sunshine.

Desmond said the chicks were about 3 weeks old, still too young to fly. But they would soon move into adjacent burrows, an important step on the way to independence.

"They grow fast," she said. The chicks will keep their juvenile feathers until the fall, when they'll molt into their adult plumage. They'll be ready to fly when they are 6 weeks old. That's an important stage, and researchers step up their observation time when the chicks are expected to be able to start flying. Desmond said, at that point, they would do back-to-back, one-hour observations in the early morning and late evening, when owls are most active.

Each nesting site is tagged and the GPS (Global Positioning System) location is recorded, to help in tracking it from year to year. Desmond said the research will help show whether certain sites are more successful locations for raising chicks. The researchers may band birds next year, to help determine whether the same birds return, year-after-year, to the same site and to examine adult survival.

Desmond said some places have seen a shift of burrowing owl populations to urban areas, such as in Southern California, where there is a very large population of owls.

Mason is a seasoned owl watcher. She worked with Desmond through June, examining the relationship between the amount of "decoration" at owl nests and the success of the parents. Next, she'll move on to assist a graduate student with a salamander research project in the Sacramento Mountains this month, which is studying the relationship of forest thinning projects and salamander habitat.

Castiano is more focused on marine ecology, having spent last summer working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Corpus Christi, Texas. While mammals are her preference, she said she enjoyed the owl research project, which served as an independent study topic during the first summer session at NMSU. Later this summer, she'll go back to work for USFW, probably in Albuquerque.

Next year, Desmond plans to continue the research project by developing a model to predict where in town owls will nest, and monitoring which of the known nest sites stay occupied. She believes the research will prove useful for owl conservation and open space and urban planning.

Desmond also would like to expand the study to juvenile owl movements and survival after they leave the nest.