is the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network and why is it
so important to put so much effort into saving one species?
—Ginny Bateman, Portland, OR
a common species in California and across North
America, the Western burrowing owl has become a
rarer and rarer sight over the last three decades
given habitat loss and other environmental perils
the bird faces.
burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) are tiny, long-legged
members of the owl family, native to the Americas and preferring
open landscapes where they can dig new holes or use existing
ones (such as abandoned prairie dog, skunk or armadillo
homes) to nest and rear their young. Unlike most other owl
species, these small but charismatic birds are more often
seen out and about during daylight hours, but they are most
active and do their primary feeding at night, preferring
a diet of small rodents and large insects.
a common species in California and across North America,
the Western burrowing owl has become a rarer and rarer sight
over the last three decades given habitat loss and other
environmental perils the bird faces. Biologists consider
the bird an indicator of wider ecosystem health, so if its
population numbers are healthy then local ecosystems are
likely thriving. But these days the bird is endangered in
Canada and threatened in Mexico, is a state endangered species
in Colorado, and is considered a “species of special
concern” in Florida and most of the western U.S. It
is also listed on the International Union for Conservation
of Nature’s (IUCN’s) international “Red
List” of endangered and threatened species (albeit
as a species of “Least Concern” in comparison
with others in more dire straits).
group of dedicated birders, conservationists, biologists
and concerned citizens in San Francisco’s East Bay
came together to protect dwindling burrowing owl populations
locally but ended up creating a movement that spans the
entire North American continent. Their group, the Burrowing
Owl Conservation Network (BOCN) believes that burrowing
owls are vital to maintaining healthy, functioning ecosystems,
and as such is working on several fronts to help protect
habitat and reverse the animal’s population slide.
and foremost, BOCN works to conserve habitat for burrowing
owls in California and beyond, including constructing artificial
burrows to help re-establish burrowing owl colonies while
larger ecosystem restoration efforts are underway. Teaching
children and communities about ways they can help protect
and improve burrowing owl habitat is another important part
of BOCN’s work. Other ways the group helps the owls
is by advocating for legislation and policy changes that
encourage conservation of habitat, networking with like-minded
individuals and institutions, and conducting field and laboratory
research to increase understanding about how to help burrowing
owls and create habitat conditions ideal for their survival.
fact that burrowing owl populations in other parts of the
world are rebounding gives hope to BOCN and other wildlife
advocates and environmentalists. The birds are common and
widespread in Central and South America, where they inhabit
fields and even sometimes parks in urban areas.
the birds can replicate their success in Latin America up
north remains to be seen. As for what readers can do to
help, learning about the behavior, biology and habitat needs
of wild animals like the burrowing owl is a sure way to
develop respect for nature’s inhabitants and a lifelong
willingness to protect them. And nothing beats witnessing
burrowing owls go about their rounds. Seeing them in the
wild is enough to convince anyone that they are worth fighting
NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!
EarthTalk: Is it true that cutting and burning
trees adds more global warming pollution to the atmosphere
than all the cars and trucks in the world combined?
—Mitchell Vale, Houston, TX
in tropical rainforests -- from logging, coffee
growing, meat and milk production and other economic
activities -- adds more CO2 to the atmosphere than
the sum total of cars and trucks on the world's
roads. Pictured: Cattle in a clearcut portion of
the Amazon Rainforest.
By most accounts,
deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide
to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks
on the world’s roads. According to the World Carfree
Network (WCN), cars and trucks account for about 14 percent
of global carbon emissions, while most analysts attribute
upwards of 15 percent to deforestation.
The reason that
logging is so bad for the climate is that when trees are
felled they release the carbon they are storing into the
atmosphere, where it mingles with greenhouse gases from
other sources and contributes to global warming accordingly.
The upshot is that we should be doing as much to prevent
deforestation as we are to increase fuel efficiency and
reduce automobile usage.
the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a leading green group,
32 million acres of tropical rainforest were cut down each
year between 2000 and 2009—and the pace of deforestation
is only increasing. “Unless we change the present
system that rewards forest destruction, forest clearing
will put another 200 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere
in coming decades…,” says EDF.
plan to reduce global warming pollution sufficiently—and
in time—to avoid dangerous consequences must rely
in part on preserving tropical forests,” reports EDF.
But it’s hard to convince the poor residents of the
Amazon basin and other tropical regions of the world to
stop cutting down trees when the forests are still worth
more dead than alive. “Conservation costs money, while
profits from timber, charcoal, pasture and cropland drive
people to cut down forests,” adds EDF. Exacerbating
global warming isn’t the only negative impact of tropical
deforestation. It also wipes out biodiversity: More than
half of the world’s plant and animal species live
in tropical rainforests.
One way some
tropical countries are reducing deforestation is through
participation in the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions
from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program.
REDD essentially works to establish incentives for the people
who care for the forest to manage it sustainably while still
being able to benefit economically. Examples include using
less land (and therefore cutting fewer trees) for activities
such as coffee growing and meat and milk production. Participating
nations can then accrue and sell carbon pollution credits
when they can prove they have lowered deforestation below
a baseline. The REDD program has channeled over $117 million
in direct financial aid and educational support into national
deforestation reduction efforts in 44 developing countries
across Africa, Asia and Latin America since its 2008 inception.
Brazil is among
the countries embracing REDD among other efforts to reduce
carbon emissions. Thanks to the program, Brazil has slowed
deforestation within its borders by 40 percent since 2008
and is on track to achieve an 80 percent reduction by 2020.
Environmentalists are optimistic that the initial success
of REDD in Brazil bodes well for reducing deforestation
in other parts of the tropics as well.