Raptor Research REU Day 1, Burrowing Owls!

Yesterday I made the trek across the country from Asheville to Boise.  I arrived around 3pm Mountain Time, and was greeted by two grad students who took me and another fellow intern, Logan, to campus.  A total of 8 undergraduates were chosen this year to participate in the Raptor Research REU program at Boise State.  Each student has a mentor and an individual research project, and several different raptors are being studied (Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, Osprey, Burrowing Owl).  In the evening, the eight of us decided to walk through campus to the Boise River and take the greenbelt (path along the river) to two adjacent parks, Ann Morrison Park and Kathryn Albertson Park, to look for wildlife.  Even just going on a leisurely nature walk with a group of young scientists becomes an opportunity for species identification.  Being from different parts of the country, different schools, and different backgrounds, each of us seems to come with our own unique skill sets and knowledge.  Aidan can identify plants by their smell.  Andrew was consistently the first person to spot birds.  Lizzie and Logan could identify bird calls.  And since I grew up here, and remember walking these parks as a child, I could lead the group to a few of my favorite spots for watching wildlife.  By the time we made our way back to our apartment, we had walked about 6 miles, and had become pleasantly aquainted with one another.

This morning, the grad students along with Dr. Belthoff, head of our REU program, drove us out to a section of the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area near Mountain Home to witness the banding of Burrowing Owls and nest excavation.  Check these guys out!

The first Burrowing Owl we caught was this feisty female. When extracted from the small trap at the entrance of the nest, she began clicking her bill loudly in alarm. It is difficult to age Burrowing Owls, and literature has not been published on how to do so, but Dr. Belthoff concluded that she was a young bird, probably having hatched last year, based on feather coloration on the underside of the wing.
These Burrowing Owls are caught by inserting a small trap at the entrance of an artificial nest site (one that was created by burying a tub or bucket underground and attaching it to a piece of piping that curves up towards the surface), and digging towards the main cavity of the nest underground until the resident bird is flushed out.
This female still had a fresh brood patch, indicating that she was still sitting on eggs. Sure enough, when we peaked into the tub, there were 5-6 tiny several-day-old owlets along with two unhatched eggs. The new hatchlings had fluffy white downy feathers and were packed together tightly in a little baby blob.
This adorably awkward baby was found in the next nest we visited. He/she was estimated to be 7-10 days old. Too small to band, and too cute!
Very photogenic as well.
This is an artificial nest after it has been dug up and the lid has been removed. If you look close enough you can see a baby owl peeking up from the shadows.
The next nest we visited contained 11 young owls, a couple weeks in age. Some were too small to band, so these nestlings were not banded either, but they were extracted from the nest in order to remove some of the fleas that had taken up residence among their feathers. These fleas will be sent off to the NIH for disease analysis. The fleas in this area are known to have the potential to carry the plague, but have not been studied extensively.
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In an attempt to scare off predators, young burrowing owls like this one can make a sound similar to that of a rattlesnake when startled.  As fleas were collected from the nestlings, a rattling sound and a lot of scurrying could be heard from within the bucket.

What a wonderful way to kickstart my summer in Idaho!  Thank you Burrowing Owls for being so cute!

5 thoughts on “Raptor Research REU Day 1, Burrowing Owls!

  1. I am so glad your mother shared your blog. Well written and fun. I felt like I was with you on your first couple of days. Sounds like you have an awesome career in your future.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh Lauren how wonderful your blogs are. Keep them up if you have time. Smell the sagebrush after a light rain for me also I saw many burrowing owls on my way to work at the Idaho prison. They are such sweet and cute animals.

    Liked by 1 person

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