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NMSU Researchers Unearth Burrowing Owl Secrets

LAS CRUCES - The last rays of the setting sun glow just bright enough for New Mexico State University student Justin Mapula to see inside a burlap-covered trap wedged into the opening of a dark burrow.

A burrowing owl can be easily identified at a distance by the bright yellow band on its leg. New Mexico State University researchers will be better able to keep track of owls that live in Las Cruces after a banding project this summer. Researchers hope to learn about owl survival, return rates and whether the same owls nest in the same burrows each year. (07/05/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

A lively rattling sound inside the trap would make most people think twice about putting a hand inside, but Mapula reaches deep into the mailbox-shaped trap, past the first swinging door, all the way to the back. He gently extracts a burrito-sized burrowing owl chick that blinks its big yellow eyes in the fading light. Its rattlesnake-imitating call didn't work this time.

Mapula, from El Paso, is a sophomore in NMSU's fishery and wildlife sciences department. Junior wildlife sciences majors Jennifer Runnels of Farmington and Robin Boyle of Blackstone, Mass., also are helping trap the owls this late June evening in a city-owned arroyo near busy Valley Drive. NMSU alum Lisa Mason is coordinating their efforts and associate professor Martha Desmond oversees multi-layered research about burrowing owls in Las Cruces.

The project is partially supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation's Advance Program at NMSU for Women in Science. Runnels, Boyle and Cathy Howard of Alamogordo received scholarships from the program to participate in the research.

Last summer, researchers located and observed burrowing owl nesting sites, and this is the first time the owls are being trapped and banded so they can later be individually identified by researchers using binoculars.

Desmond said they will be able to determine survival statistics, return rates and whether the same owls nest in the same burrows. "You would think so because the exact same burrows are often used year after year," Desmond said.

Desmond is especially interested in the potential to conserve owl populations in urban settings. The owls are considered a species of interest in the United States, an endangered species in Canada and a threatened species in Mexico. But while their numbers are waning in native habitats, they seem to be adapting to city life. Marking owls for individual identification to examine survivorship will give a true indication of how well these birds do long-term in an urban environment. The Valley Drive burrow is one of several in the immediate area and one of 42 in Las Cruces researchers are watching.

Numerous burrows line the Valley Drive arroyo, and the researchers have a productive evening, trapping about 20 owls. They place each owl in a pillow case, and make a note where it was captured. Each burrow is identified by a metal tag that corresponds with a GPS (Global Positioning System) location. The researchers carry the pillow cases to the bed of a pickup, where each owl is weighed. They crimp an aluminum U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band around one of the owl's legs, and a bright yellow plastic band, marked by two letters large enough for researchers to see at a distance, is wrapped around the other leg. Each owl is returned to the burrow where it was found.

Desmond would like to see the project generate more awareness of the owls and highlight the need to consider owl habitat as the city continues to grow and develop.

"This is a bird that the public really likes," Desmond said. She still receives calls about owl locations from residents who read about the owl research last year. "People like to see them in their neighborhoods."

One prospective project would be to include owl burrow locations as an overlay on city maps being used in planning new developments. Simple steps could be taken to allow for owl habitat without impeding construction, such as building artificial owl burrows and preserving known nesting locations.

"There are ways to achieve both," Desmond said.

Desmond said the project is giving undergraduate students valuable experience in data collection, trapping and handling birds while having the opportunity to contribute to important research. That's especially useful for students who are still not ready to specialize in one area of wildlife study. Runnels, for example, also is interested in researching mountain lions in the Sacramento Mountains, but she finds owls fascinating, especially the chance "to interact with the wildlife, seeing them up close."

Mapula also is working on silvery minnow research. "I'm just trying out different things to see what I like," he said.

Desmond said this phase of the research will wrap up in July. Researchers will turn their attention this fall to the owls that remain in Las Cruces through the winter months.