Arizona Burrowing Owl

A great horned owl is suspected of swooping in and snatching a pet dog in Apache Junction, much to the horror of the pet sitter. The brazen, but natural, event has caused much consternation in the northern Pinal County community.

We in Casa Grande and lower Pinal County have been dealing for years with owls scooping up dogs all the time.

Oh wait, not dogs. Dog poop.

As you may have noticed, Casa Grande has an abundance of burrowing owls that call the community home. Their burrows can usually be found in dirt mounds on vacant lots scattered throughout the city, or plowed-up land next to farms.

These delightful little squatters often nest and roost in the burrows made by ground squirrels. When threatened, the owl retreats into the burrow and produces rattling and hissing sounds similar to that of a rattlesnake. This mimicry behavior is an effective strategy in scaring off predators and mischievous kids trying to get their hands on the cute creatures.

This time of year you may have noticed that the entrances to some of these burrows have been littered with dog poop. When I first noticed this disgusting practice, I thought the owls were practicing the unsanitary custom of “pooping where they eat.” But since some of the feces were as large as the owls themselves, I began to suspect something else was at work. Either that or the owls were like mini-breeder reactors with an output greater than their input.

So like a good journalist, I looked it up.

At first experts thought the owls were placing the fecal matter in front of their burrows to mask their scent. Nothing hides a scent better than processed Purina Dog Chow.

But upon further study, these experts have found that the poop is collected when the owls have young ones to feed, and the insects attracted to the dog poop are just what the owl pediatric dietician ordered. The poop is piled up in front of the den to attract dung beetles and other insects that can be easily plucked out of the decaying mass and fed to the hungry owlettes, or whatever baby owls are called. Plus mom and dad don’t have to venture far to bring home the bugs.

The nesting season begins in late March or April in Arizona. Burrowing owls usually only have one mate but occasionally a male will have two mates. Pairs of owls will sometimes nest in loose colonies, which means a lot more poop in a smaller geographical area.

Burrowing owls are tolerant of human presence, often nesting near roads, farms, homes and regularly maintained irrigation canals. They may even behave in a threatening manner when someone, or a loose dog, gets too close to their nest.

There have been a number of news stories lately about how well wildlife has adapted to the human stay-home practice during the coronavirus pandemic. In our national parks, free of hordes of visitors, wildlife have been sighted in places they have never been seen before. And it’s not just the national parks, it’s major cities all over the world. My favorite viral video was of a family of otters frolicking in a vacant downtown Singapore.

But what has been overlooked by this temporary phenomenon (the animals will retreat once the humans emerge again) is that in the last decade wildlife has adapted, even thrived, in urban areas.

Biologists have documented how mountain lions live in and around Los Angeles, with the different freeways as their habitat boundaries.

For our local pygmy owls, if premade burrows are unavailable, they will also nest in underground man-made structures that have easy access to the surface, such as pipes and culverts.

So instead of swooping down to carry off dogs, our owls swoop down in the yards and thus the proverbial “poop is going to fly,” even without hitting the fan.

And you thought Junior was doing a such a good job of keeping up with his chores.

Unfortunately, if the owl is not sure-clawed, then it may accidentally drop some poop on your car.

And we considered the doves a nuisance.

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You can reach Andy Howell at ahowell@pinalcentral.com.

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