Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ground Squirrels Give a Hand to Burrowing Owls

The San Diego Zoo is reporting on the initial success of a project to help restore populations of burrowing owls in San Diego county by introducing California ground squirrels to their territory.

Welcome to the neighborhood!

The small owls, along with other species, have declined in number largely due to the introduction of non-native grasses by ranchers. These grasses provide a thicker ground cover than the owls are adapted to. According to researcher Ron Swaisgood of the San Diego Zoo, it would be impossible to restore this habitat to its previous state. However, introducing California ground squirrels might help to recreate a similar habitat as the squirrels dig their burrows and open up the vegetation.

Hey, where am I?

This project is, of course, not without its challenges and setbacks. Many of the ground squirrels apparently don't like their new home and take off for surroundings more to their liking. Others become prey for hawks and coyotes. But the researchers do what they can to ease the squirrels into their new hood. They move groups of squirrels that already know each other together (the squirrels are taken from private land where they are not wanted); the squirrels spend the first week in an "acclimation chamber" getting used to the new area; then they are fed tasty treats for several months as incentive to stick around.

So far the program has had some success. At least some of the squirrels are digging burrows and setting up households. And the owls seem to be benefiting, as some have already moved into abandoned squirrel burrows. The research team is closely monitoring the squirrels after release, and hoping to learn how to better insure greater success in the future!

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