Earth Notes: Tracking Burrowing Owls

May 17, 2017

In the western United States, a little owl is at the center of a big project. Researchers have outfitted burrowing owls with backpacks containing miniature solar-powered satellite transmitters that reveal the locations of individual owls remotely using live Web maps.

Burrowing owl with transmitter
Credit Courtney J. Conway


The U.S. Department of Defense Legacy Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Utah Division of Natural Resources, University of Idaho, and others have teamed up to track the movements of these seven-ounce birds.

In some places, burrowing owl populations are in steep decline. Scientists want to pinpoint the causes before it’s too late to save these quirky, head-bobbing raptors. Learning where the owls overwinter, and where they refuel along their migratory routes, may be key. If problems arise in these places—such as development that destroys the owls’ burrows—solutions could be sought.

From the tracking transmitters, scientists already have found that some owls are wintering near Mexico City, much farther south than previously thought. Still, they hope to learn much more—why burrowing owls in Utah are not very social, while those in other regions live in large colonies. Also, why Utah's owls tend to be itinerant, while in other states they return to the same place each spring.

Somewhere right now tiny backpack-wearing owls are sending back information that may help solve these and other mysteries.