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Development Is Ruining Burrowing Owl Habitat

A burrowing owl

South Florida developers have some small but familiar foes: critters like gopher tortoises and burrowing owls that are commonly found on undeveloped sites, but slow down projects because of their protected status.

Burrowing owls, which make their homes in the ground rather than nests in trees, used to live in the prairies of central Florida, but the rapid pace of development has driven them to any grassy area they can find, including parks, ranches, airports and undeveloped lots.

“Today, this owl is as likely to be found in open areas of urban and suburban landscapes,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Owls may even “occasionally inhabit manmade structures such as pipes and drains.”

Burrowing owls are uncommonly cute. Not only do male and female owls mate long term, but the male often goes and finds food like worms and roaches for his partner and babies. Males also stand guard in front of the family burrow to fend off predators. The burrows can extend four to eight feet underground.

But amid Florida's rampant development, the birds' habitat has dwindled, and the wildlife commission does not know how many owls remain.

Last January, the commission changed the owl’s conservation status from “species of special concern” to “threatened,” The Sun-Sentinel reports.

Even so, it is relatively easy for developers to scoot threatened species out of the way or build over the nests regardless. Developers may apply for “incidental take permits” with the FWC. Decision-makers take into consideration the health of the species and efforts to mitigate damage to habitats.

FWC staff are in the process of drafting a proposal to better protect the birds. The agency sought input this summer for how to handle permitting, especially in urban areas. The draft proposal is expected in December.