Beautiful Burrowers: Landscaping To Attract Burrowing Owls

Marvin Simmons

Canada boasts some of the most amazing scenery anywhere in the world, but the breathtaking beauty of the countryside often overshadows some of the ecological disasters occurring right under the noses of the very people who live there.

One species in particular, the Burrowing Owl, is disappearing at an alarming rate. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife listed the Burrowing Owl as endangered in 1995, and that status was re-confirmed both in 2000 and in 2006. Scientists still aren't sure why they're disappearing, although agricultural techniques that reduce both suitable habitats and populations of insects and rodents in areas where the owls feed could play a big part in their demise.

So, what can you, the humble citizen, do about it? The answer is: landscape. Habitat destruction does more than remove possible nest sites; it chases away insects, rodents and other amphibians upon which these birds feed. So, one way to get them to come back is to build their idea of an oasis in your own backyard! Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Masses and Masses of Grasses

Not sure what kinds of plants to use in your landscape? Well, go for a drive in the country and look no further than the side of the road. What do you see? Lots of grasses and maybe a smattering of flowers here and there? Those are exactly the types of plants that entice grasshoppers and rodents, such as field mice, two of a Burrowing Owl's favorite foods.

To recreate this in your own backyard (minus the speeding traffic), plant grasses of various heights along the sides of pathways or along the back edge of your yard. Add a splash of color by choosing flowering plants native to the area. The grasses will attract rodents on which the owls feed, and the flowers will attract delightful, little insect morsels for the hungry birds. Just don't plant them directly up against your house-- it might encourage wildlife to pursue their livelihoods inside the walls of your house rather than outside in your backyard where you want to enjoy their presence.

Seep and Ye Shall Find

Seeps are areas on a hillside that collect water. They're not quite springs; water doesn't just bubble up out of the ground or gush forth like a mini-geyser, but you can tell where one is if there's a persistently wet area with plants, such as cattails, growing on or around it.

If you live in a hilly area, using a natural seep to create a watering spot for wildlife is a great way to incorporate the natural layout of your backyard into your landscape plans. The steps for creating such a watering spot are easy, and you and your feathered friends will be able to enjoy it for years to come!

Build a Better Burrow

Contrary to their name, Burrowing Owls don't make their own burrows. Instead, they prefer the move-in-ready kind previously inhabited by badgers, squirrels and other burrowing animals.

So, if you really want to attract these birds to your backyard, why not build a couple of potential nesting areas for them? All you need are a handful of materials easily obtained from the nearest home improvement store and a little bit of elbow grease. John H. Barclay, of the Raptor Research Foundation, came up with a design for such an artificial burrow that is used by many wildlife preservation organizations throughout North America to this day. Or, you can design your own burrow using materials you already have at hand.

Once you've built the burrow, you'll be able to tell if a family of owls has moved in by the light aroma of poop emanating from the burrow. Yes. That's right. Poop. Burrowing Owls line their burrows with a mix of dry plants, feathers and...well...fragrant feces from other animals, such as cows. Not only does it mask the owls' smell to keep them safe from predators, but it also lures the owls' favorite snack (the dung beetle) right to their doorstep.

And there you have it! With careful planning, effort and a dollop of imagination, you can enjoy these beautiful, winged creatures from the comfort of your own backyard!