Whirlpool Golf Club in Chandler, Arizona, there are two golf courses… and burrowing owls.
Burrowing owls were once common in the Phoenix area, but habitat loss has been a big factor in their population decline, according to the National Audubon Society. Recently, Whirlwind Golf Club partnered with the non-profit organization The heart that is in Desert to move two burrowing owls.
“Most owls… [in the Wild at Heart program] do not need rehabilitation,” says Greg Clark, burrowing owl habitat coordinator for Wild at Heart. “They’re just in the development lane.”
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Whirlwind Golf Club already had a population of burrowing owls living on one of its courses and the club decided to work with Wild at Heart to house two more, according to Jonathan Williams, director of agronomy for Troon Golf.
Williams further notes that Wild at Heart provided the club with the tools to move the owls while the golf club provided the labor. They dug and reinforced four to six foot holes so the birds would have a safe place to live.
Along with wanting to have cute owls on the golf course, Williams decided to go ahead with the project to show the public that golf courses can be eco-friendly.
“That’s another aspect of it,” Williams says, “showing that golf courses aren’t this superfund site where people are just killing little birds and destroying the environment. In fact, that’s all opposite. “
The first pair of owls released into their new homes on the course did not stay in the burrows provided for them. However, a pair of burrowing owls believed to be the released owls have been spotted near the course by an equestrian centre. Wild at Heart considers this a success.
Clark says that while Wild at Heart provides burrows for the owls, their main purpose is to relocate the owls rather than relocate them. “We usually talk about relocation rather than repatriation. What we do is called active translocation,” he says. “Active translocation uses a tent and a certain amount of time the owls are in the tent to build site fidelity to that spot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will stay in the artificial burrows we provide for them.”
Brianne Kenny, Environmental Science Manager at Troon Golf, helped organize the collaboration between Wild at Heart and Whirlwind Golf Club.
“When you work with animals, it’s very unpredictable and you just have to deal with it,” Kenny says.
Clark adds that burrowing owls decide for themselves whether the burrow provided to them is adequate. What is important is that they have a new place to live. “If our work is successful, the owls won’t go back to where they would have trouble again,” he says.
According to Kenny, another pair will be released at Whirlwind Golf Club. Currently, she says, Wild at Heart has 200 burrowing owls, but only two people are in charge of the owls, so they’re on the back burner.
“Burrowing owls can be good for golf courses because they eat some of the pests that golf courses don’t want,” Kenny says. “Golf courses are good places to live for burrowing owls because of the open spaces they provide.”
According to National geographic, the burrowing owl feeds on insects and small mammals. They do not dig the burrows they live in and instead “borrow” burrows abandoned by ground squirrels or prairie dogs.
Golf courses that are suitable for burrowing owls are “flat land with sparse vegetation so the owls can get in and out of their burrows and see easily,” says Kenny. Conveniently, the course is also close to a great natural habitat for owls.
According to Clark, burrowing owls began losing their natural habitat about 100 years ago. The United States federal government has put a bounty on prairie dogs, one of the main animals that provide burrows for burrowing owls, resulting in a decline in the prairie dog population.
“There are no hawks, hawks, or other owls that live underground, just burrowing owls,” Clark explains.
Because they depend on their underground homes, the decline in the prairie dog population has had a direct impact on the burrowing owl population.
“Active irrigated farming is where they thrive and that’s where most owls are found,” says Clark. “It could be a baseball diamond, a soccer field, greenbelt retention ponds or golf courses.
Adds Kenny, “Golf courses that don’t have ideal habitat for burrowing owls sometimes host other types of owls, such as horned owls or barn owls.”
In closing, Kenny encourages all golf courses to consider rehabilitating animals on their course. “A lot of them are open to it,” she says. “The thing we’re working on right now is trying to find where the interest is and then connecting them with the people who need to do it.”