Burrowing Owls Find Unique Nests at Camp Umatilla


State agencies collaborate to help Burrowing Owls at Camp Umatilla.

UMATILLA – Cowboys called Burrowing Owls “howdy birds,” due to way they nod in greeting from the entrances to their burrows, which they make in prairie-dog or badger tunnels. But Burrowing Owls have become rare in many areas due to loss of habitat. One such area that experienced a dwindling population Camp Umatilla, a National Guard training center. That is, until a new project helped restore the population. 

All photos courtesy of David H. “DJ” Johnson

In 2008, Don Gillis, the Natural Resource Manager at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, noticed a decline in the nesting areas for the Burrowing Owls at Camp Umatilla. The decline was a result of a lack of badgers making tunnels in the ground that the owls depended on for their spring nesting areas. Gillis knew that there could be other ruptures in the ecosystem if the owls continued to decline.

When he bumped into Mike Greg, who works with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, Gillis asked him if he knew of anyone that could help with the issue. Greg told him of a man in Virginia that was the leading expert in owl conservation. That man was David H. “DJ” Johnson, Director of the Global Owl Project.

With only six pairs of Burrowing Owls left at the depot, Johnson and Gillis devised a plan to install artificial nesting tunnels to replace the ones made by the badgers.

“One male owl waited on a perch watching them install one of the nesting tunnels,” Gillis said. “As soon as they finished and were walking away, the owl flew down and took ownership of the nest.”

In total, they have installed 96 nesting tunnels, and all but one has been occupied over the 12 years they have been tracking the owls. Every spring since 2008, Johnson and a team of faithful volunteers have made Camp Umatilla their home. Johnson and his team skillfully and gently trap each owl and band its legs so they can weigh and measure it, as well as count the eggs and the condition of the nest.

Next, they record the calling sounds the males make to other male owls, which is specific to the species. As a male owl matures, his voice changes. The purpose of the recording is that the team analyzes weaker male owl calls, which are used to lure other males (who will go and investigate the sound) into their burrows. To help the team trap them, a small Mp3 player is placed inside to simulate the actual owl in the nest.

The team stays working at the site until the eggs hatch, and at six weeks the chicks are then ready to be banded. In addition to the bands, the team puts tiny satellite transmitters on the owls to determine their migrating habits. The males usually go north into Washington State in the fall, while the females usually vacation in the south, some as far as Mexico.

Before this project started, there were six pairs of Burrowing Owls using Camp Umatilla as their nesting location. As of June 2020, there are now 36 pairs.

“Military training on the camp will in no way harm the owls and their nesting, and the owls will in no way affect the training,” said Johnson.

In the 12 years of conservation efforts, this has become a victory for the owls and the military mission on Camp Umatilla, Oregon. The unique partnership has brought about a new understanding of how military training sites can balance the needs of the natural environment while still conducting operational training and missions.

About Author

Paul Rushing is a Public Affairs Officers with the Army Unit 41 Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

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