Amid rapid growth, a Florida city unites to save its burrowing owls from habitat encroachment
As construction overtakes their habitat in Cape Coral, Florida, burrowing owls try to adapt. One sits atop a spike of rebar (above left), likely on the lookout for prey or predators. Another (above right) stands sentry near the opening of its burrow in precious terrain that’s increasingly under siege.
CAPE CORAL, FLORIDA, is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, its population up nearly 98 percent to more than 204,000 since 2000. Construction is booming, a plus for the economy but disastrous for area wildlife—especially ground-nesting burrowing owls. Standing about 9 inches tall, they are the only bird of prey in North America that nests solely underground, and they’re in decline as their habitat shrinks. In 2016, the state of Florida listed the owl as threatened, sparking renewed dedication among conservationists to help save these beloved birds.
The Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife (CCFW) is spearheading those efforts locally by enlisting area residents as volunteers to mark and monitor owl burrows and to dig “starter burrows” in their own yards. “It’s important that people help dig burrows,” says CCFW volunteer Jana Charvat. “Otherwise, there will be no room left for the owls.”
Cape Coral is home to the largest population of Florida’s burrowing owls. In the 2022 owl count, CCFW volunteers estimated more than 1,700 adults (roughly 300 fewer than in 2005) and some 2,095 juvenile owls throughout the city. At about 12 weeks old, juveniles leave the home burrow in search of one of their own, but that real estate is increasingly limited—and often comes at a high price.
Many owls resort to nesting near busy sidewalks and streets, within sight of passersby (above). There, they face the threat of traffic strikes, pet attacks or burrow collapse if people or vehicles tread on the site. Insecticides, herbicides and rodenticides can poison owl habitat and prey. And nature itself can take a toll. Last September, Hurricane Ian caused devastating flooding and destruction here, leaving many owl burrows drowned or covered in debris.
And yet, “there’s hope in maintaining our burrowing owl population here in Cape Coral,” says Pascha Donaldson, former president of CCFW. Such charismatic creatures inspire action from compassionate residents, who may enjoy seeing an owl perched on a mail box (above) or watching a juvenile doing an early morning stretch near its siblings (below).
To support the owls, volunteers help mark burrows with signs and install perches at the sites, even in locations as busy as the median in a parking lot (below). Donaldson praises residents who have dug some 200 starter burrows in their yards over the years, as well as those now working to restore burrows after Hurricane Ian. With such friends, the owls of Cape Coral may continue to thrive.
Wildlife photographer Devon Matthews is based in Minnesota.
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