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L-o-n-g-Distance Nester

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Most of us didn’t hear about it, but a female Burrowing Owl nested twice and successfully fledged seven young within the same breeding season—approximately 1,100 miles apart, first in Arizona and then in Saskatchewan.

Burrowing_Owl This remarkable occurrence was documented by Geoffrey Holroyd and Helen Trefry of Environment Canada and Courtney Conway at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. They reported it in 2011 in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology (123:378–381).

The events began when an adult pair was found on 14 April at a nest site on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base during a study of Burrowing Owls in the Tucson area. A male was at the burrow entrance, and an infrared video probe showed a female down in the burrow, apparently incubating. Both adults were banded on 27 April.

Another video probe detected one juvenile down in the burrow on 21 May, but on an unknown date in May the female abandoned the nestling and was not seen in the area again. 

Jump to 12 July. That same female, identified by her bands, was discovered nesting in a pasture in southern Saskatchewan. This time she fared better, with a brood of seven.

Conway observed two other cases in the Tucson study area in which a female abandoned nestlings and renested with a new mate locally. The authors cited other second nestings in Arizona, California, Florida, and Mexico, but these were either in the same burrow or at new sites short distances away. This is the first time a Burrowing Owl’s second nesting in one season has been documented after a long-distance dispersal.

Such extreme behavior doesn’t make much sense when we typically suppose (sometimes too confidently) that creatures tend to expend the least possible energy for the best possible reward. But, of course, it’s even more unlikely that the owl managed to hitch a ride northward, Woody Guthrie-style, and happened to end up at another Burrowing Owl colony more than a thousand miles away.

This bird’s journey adds a welcome bit of awe to ornithology, doesn’t it?

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Paul Hess

Paul Hess

Paul Hess, the Birding "News and Notes" Department Editor, started watching birds at age 7 in Los Angeles. Now a retired newspaper editor in Pennsylvania, he formerly chaired the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee, has contributed many articles to the journal Pennsylvania Birds, writes an ornithological news column for the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology newsletter, edits the Three Rivers Birding Club newsletter in Pittsburgh, and has coauthored several National Geographic books on birds. Paul has received prominent awards for outstanding contributions to Pennsylvania ornithology and for bird conservation efforts in the state.
Paul Hess

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  • http://onejackdawbirding.blogspot.com Hilke Breder

    Wow! Incredible story! Hard to believe and contradicts all knowledge about the role of energy cost and conservation, but it appears to be well-documented. Still….

  • http://profile.typepad.com/d95579899240421131 A Facebook User

    Is this what is considered a long distance love affair????

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