By Ian Cook, Grassland Conservation Manager.
The grasslands of the Canadian Prairies are a world of weird and wonderful birds. This unique place includes such characters like the gangly, catcalling Upland Sandpiper, the ‘booming’ and ‘lekking’ Sharp-tailed Grouse, and the Loggerhead Shrike, the songbird that has the macabre habit of skewering its prey on barbed wire. Even in this set of delightfully strange characters, the Burrowing Owl is a stand out.
They’re a tiny owl, that lives underground in burrows they can’t dig themselves/ For that, they rely on badgers, who also just so happen to be one of their main predators. Burrowing Owls line their burrows with dung, they decorate with bones, and they make sounds like a rattlesnake. They are charismatic to the point of being downright comical at times and yet a wonder of evolution and a microcosm of the evolutionary tools a bird needs to survive in an environment largely absent of trees, defined by extremes, and shaped by grazing and frequent fire.
Despite the Burrowing Owl being so unique, its recent history is unfortunately shared with the rest of the grassland birds in Canada. Grassland birds are declining faster than any other group of birds in Canada, having declined nearly 60% in the last 50 years. Burrowing Owl populations in Canada crashed by around 90% in the 1990s and have continued declining since.
In our most recent episode of The Warblers Podcast, Andrea Gress chats with Graham Dixon-MacCallum of the Wilder Institute to discuss some of the drivers of Burrowing Owl declines as part of our Wake-up Call series. Many of these threats, such as loss of burrowing animals to excavate the homes Burrowing Owls need, pesticides reducing prey abundance, and loss of suitable nesting areas are all related to the loss of grassland habitat. Most grassland loss in the Burrowing Owl’s range in Canada is driven by the conversion of grasslands, once used to graze cattle, into cropland. Burrowing Owls can make their home in a cattle pasture, but they can’t in wheat, canola, or lentil fields. And for ranchers, it often makes little to no financial sense to keep grasslands intact and continue to raise cattle if they could be growing grain crops instead. This is not to say that grain farming is bad (or easy)—we obviously need grains!—however the economics make it very difficult for producers to choose to keep grasslands intact. Because of these economic drivers, there have been vast changes to the temperate grasslands of the Canadian Prairies. They are now the most under-protected and threatened biome on the planet. A staggering 185,000 hectares of grasslands continue to be lost every year on the Canadian Prairies!
Birds Canada is working hard on the Prairies to help grassland birds. Our work here is rooted in the Birds Canada mission to take a science-based approach to better understand, appreciate and conserve birds. We’ve been working closely with the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the South of the Divide Conservation Action Program Inc. to sample birds, plants, and insects at ranches in Saskatchewan to better understand the relationships between all of these things and cattle grazing. We’re doing bird surveys on farms, ranches, and Indigenous lands that are participating in conservation and stewardship programs in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. This work is supported by a variety of partners, including ALUS Canada, Manitoba Habitat Conservancy, Nature Conservancy of Canada, and Saskatchewan Stock Growers Foundation. We then sit down with the results of our bird surveys and the producers and land managers to help them learn more about the bird community on their land. This spring, we found a Burrowing Owl on a ranch in Saskatchewan and the rancher was so absolutely delighted that owls had made a home on her grasslands! These sit-downs with producers are a wonderful way to for us to learn from one another.
We are also working hard to more directly address the root cause of grassland bird declines in Canada, grassland conversion, by developing innovative approaches to grassland bird conservation. In addition to working to inform new policy, we are also developing a biodiversity indicator called the Bird-friendliness Index. By measuring the impacts of conservation and management on the whole grassland bird community on a farm, ranch, or protected area, the Bird-friendliness Index communicates the benefits that a farm or ranch is providing to birds and biodiversity. This enables market and policy tools that reward positive bird outcomes.
Thanks to your support of our work in the Canadian Prairies, we are helping to make sure grassland birds, like the weird and wonderful Burrowing Owl, will be on the Canadian Prairies for many years to come.