Status of Burrowing Owls in California

Burrowing Owl Field Site. Photo Credit: Max Pacheco

Burrowing Owls used to be in large numbers around the Wildhorse golf course in North Davis. Owls used to nest in the cement blocks that covered drainage tunnels for rainwater. Today only a handful of owls live in the Davis area. Photo Credit: Max Pacheco

The Burrowing Owl is not listed as a California or Federal Endangered Species although the State of California lists it as a species of special concern. The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for the owls be listed under the California Endangered Species Act in 2003. However the California Fish and Game Commission rejected their petition due to "lack of information on declines in the state overall". However, there has been a large decline in owl numbers across their range and some groups are planning to petition for endangered species protection again.

Much of Yolo County used to be excellent burrowing owl habitat, and hundreds of pairs of these owls lived in the area. They require very low vegetation and available burrows, because they must be able to see off in a distance to detect incoming predators. Perfect conditions for them used to be found in gently rolling native grasslands where grass was very short, squirrels dug burrows, and the owls could sit on a gentle rise during the day. Other suitable environments include edges of cattle pastures and row crops or alfalfa fields where the squirrels are active but the vegetation is low. Burrowing owls can even inhabit peri-urban settings such as near airfields, golf courses, and even parking lots if they can find a safe place with burrows, and vegetation remains low.  

Development in Yolo County, especially around Davis, led to declines in their population over the last several decades. Before a census done by the Institute for Bird Populations starting in 2006, major issues contributing to their decline were building (Mace Ranch, UC Davis Colleges at LaRue and UCD School of Veterinary Medicine all were built on top of excellent and inhabited owl habitat); and conversion to orchard agriculture, which is not compatible habitat for owls. In response to development on burrowing owl habitat in Davis and an associated legal settlement, the City of Davis created an endowment and mitigation site on the Yolo County Grasslands Park for burrowing owl conservation, although owls haven't bred at this site since 2003. Until about a decade ago, there were a few pockets where owls could still persist, including in Dunnigan and Winters, in the far south of the County near Clarksburg, and in Davis on the Wildhorse golf course, in a few little wild parks near Mace Ranch and near the Covell/I-80 corner. Almost all of these are now gone. The Burrowing Owl Preservation Society and Institute for Bird Populations did a large county-wide survey which showed that, since 2006, there has been a 76% decline in burrowing owl numbers. Where there used to be 30 or more pairs near the Wildhorse golf course, in 2014 there were only three. As of 2015, there is only one and it hasn’t bred in the last three years- it flies around the area trying to find a place to settle. The only known breeding pair in Davis is a well-recognized pair near the Target in East Davis on a vacant lot that is slated to be developed as soon as a developer buys it and files plans that are acceptable to the City.

Please KEEP DOGS LEASHED at the Ag Buffer/Golfcourse and stay on established paths.