Owl Watch is a citizen-science, volunteer-based project founded to help monitor and protect the Burrowing Owls of Marco Island, FL. Under the guidance Audubon of the Western Everglades (AWE) and our partners at the University of Florida (UF), we train and mentor volunteers in conducting scientific surveys to measure nesting success and track changes in the population of Burrowing Owls in Marco Island over time. 

Owl Watch was founded in 2016 on the concerns of Marco Island citizens and their love for the Burrowing Owls, and its success now depends on collaboration with our partners, including the City of Marco IslandUF-IFAS, dedicated volunteers, and caring citizens like you, your family, and your friends.

Meet the Florida Burrowing Owl

The Florida Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia floridana) is a non-migratory subspecies of the wide-ranging Burrowing Owl. Historically, these owls occupied Florida’s expansive prairies north of the Everglades. However, most of these historic grasslands have been developed. Today Burrowing Owls can be found on prairie remnants and pastures throughout the state, as well as in several coastal cities.

Burrowing Owls are water bottle-sized birds, standing 7-10″ tall, and weighing 5-9 oz, or about as much as a baseball. These small owls spend the breeding season (February-July) in and around their burrows, which they typically dig themselves. Male owls can often be seen standing on a nearby perch or at the burrow entrance, watching vigilantly for predators or passing prey while females and young chicks stay below ground. Outside nesting season, Burrowing Owls seek shelter in a variety of places outside their burrow, like shrubs, trees, porches, and dry culverts. 

Unlike Western Burrowing Owls that inhabit the abandoned burrows dug by other animals, Florida Burrowing Owls typically dig their own burrows. These burrows consist of a 5-12′ tunnel, dipping down as much as 3′ below the surface, and ending in a large nest chamber. Here, the female will lay 1-7 eggs and incubate them for about a month. Once the eggs hatch, both parents hunt to feed their chicks. Owls eat a wide array of prey including beetles, small snakes, Cuban tree frogs, songbirds, crayfish, lizards, spiders, and other invertebrates. Unlike most owls, Burrowing Owls are active during the day, though they hunt mostly at night. 

MONITORING

Throughout the nesting season (February – July), over 40 volunteers monitor all 500+ burrows on Marco Island. Each week, these volunteers survey for adult owls, chicks emerging from the burrows, banded individuals, new burrows, and city code violations threatening owl burrows. From their efforts, we can determine the number of nesting pairs and the number of chicks they fledge each year.  Data collected by Owl Watch volunteers is used by UF biologists to track changes in Marco Island’s Burrowing Owl population over time.

MAINTENANCE

If you drive around Marco Island, you will see postings of  Burrowing Owl burrows in almost every neighborhood. A small group of specially trained Owl Watch volunteers are responsible for posting perches and PVC and rope fencing around new burrows, and maintaining them throughout the year. These postings protect burrows that are vulnerable to collapse by lawnmowers and vehicles. We hire specially trained landscapers to safely trim the grass within the postings during the non-breeding season, at no charge to landowners.
Landowners are responsible for preventing the collapse of any owl burrow on their property, and violations can incur steep fines from FWC, whether the collapse was intentional or unintentional. These postings around burrows help alert contractors, landscapers, and citizens to the locations of burrows vulnerable to collapse, providing peace-of-mind to landowners and wildlife enthusiasts alike. 

 RESEARCH 

Audubon of the Western Everglades and Owl Watch support the research of graduate students from the University of Florida in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. Current research is looking at burrowing owl space use, population genetics, and nesting site selection. This research is providing government agencies, conservation practitioners, and landowners with vital information about the Burrowing Owls that will be essential to the conservation of this threatened species. To learn more about the Burrowing Owl research in Macro Island and beyond, please visit our Research Page (coming soon).

How you can help Burrowing Owls

Urban Burrowing Owls primarily reside on vacant lots amid developing neighborhoods. Population strongholds like Marco Island and Cape Coral are facing a multitude of threats as open space is developed. But, there are many things you can do at home to help conserve Burrowing Owls into the future. Check out list below for ways you can help!

Volunteer

Owl Watch and Audubon of the Western Everglades are always looking for volunteers! Whether you have a background in fundraising, management, design, biology, or just want to help birds and other wildlife, we have a way you can help.

Our volunteers help run events, shorebird stewardship, owl monitoring, office logistics, and many other tasks. Are you interested in volunteering? Email the AWE staff at audubonwe@live.com and they will help find a project that fits your interests.

Donate to Owl Watch

Audubon of the Western Everglades provides Owl Watch with technical, logistical, and financial support. AWE is funded entirely on donations. Without the generosity of our donors, none of our work would be possible. Please consider donating here, or by following us on Facebook for updates like our Amazon Wish List and other fundraisers.

Do Not Feed Wildlife

Not feeding wildlife is a simple way to protect your local Burrowing Owls, beach-nesting birds, and all the other wildlife of Marco Island. Despite the good intentions, feeding wildlife is not ethical. And on Marco Island, feeding wildlife is strictly prohibited in the city’s Code of Ordinances.

You should never attempt to feed Burrowing Owls. Owls are carnivores and will not eat bread, vegetables, or any other human food left at their burrows. Leaving these items attract predators of owls, such as crows and raccoons.

Feeding wildlife habituates animals to unnaturally close contact with humans, and reinforces these harmful behaviors. Continued contact with humans can sometimes lead to wildlife being euthanized. Simply keeping trash receptacles closed and not placing food at burrows can make a big difference.

Install a Starter Burrow

As vacant lots are developed, Burrowing Owls are forced to move to new locations. UF-IFAS is currently researching the space requirements of the owls, and whether owls can be encouraged to inhabit smaller green spaces – like corners of lawns – by attracting owls to nest in starter burrows.

If you’re interested in getting your own Starter Burrow, please email us at owlwatchmarco@gmail.com

Drive Carefully at Night

Every year, volunteers and members of the public bring many Burrowing Owls to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s wildlife hospital because of car collisions.

Burrowing Owls are active at the burrows during the day, however, they hunt primarily at night. Owls are often seen at night hunting beetles around porch lights and car headlights. By driving slowly, you can reduce the likelihood of hitting a Burrowing Owl.

Keep Cats Indoors

Feral and outdoor cats are another one of Burrowing Owl’s main predators. Cats prey on both adults and chicks. Regardless of how much cats are fed by humans, they still kill songbirds, lizards, native rodents, snakes, and owls alike. By keeping cats indoors, you can help save countless lives of native wildlife, and also keep your pet from safe from cars and predators.

Limit Use of Pesticides & Rat Poison

The pesticides and poisons we use in our environment have many unseen impacts. In particular, poisons can bioaccumulate (build up) or cause secondary poisonings (poisoning from eating a poisoned animal). Rodenticides are anticoagulants that take time to work. Poisoned rodents are active in the environment for a while before they die, leaving them lethargic and easy prey for owls, other predators, and pets.

Owls, hawks, and other predators suffering from rodenticide poisoning are frequently brought to wildlife hospitals, and many do not survive. These deaths are 100% preventable. Using alternative rodent control methods, like traps, can make a difference in the lives of countless native predators.

Contribute to Conservation Land Acquisition

Available habitat for Burrowing Owls and other wildlife is dwindling in Florida, especially in coastal urban and suburban areas. If you can make a gift of land to be conserved into the future, or want to contribute to land acquisition, please email the staff of Audubon of the Western Everglades at audubonwe@live.com

AWE’s Owl Watch Partners

Thank You for your Support!