At the corner of two of the busiest roads in the northern Denver area, a blockade has attracted the attention of curious passersby. A protective barrier of traffic cones lines a wide shoulder, bordering open space on the side of the road. Signs posted on either end flutter in the wind, warning drivers that they will be ticketed for stopping in the area. Most conspicuous of all, a large digital construction sign repeatedly flashes the three-foot-high words “Do Not Disturb — Stay Out.”
Below the shoulder, a single mature tree shelters four occupants responsible for this high-security response: a family of great horned owls.
Of Colorado’s many birds of prey, great horned owls have the dubious honor of being among the most high-profile nesters. The largest of North America’s tufted owl species, great horned owls are equally at home in mountain wildernesses and rural woods as on the borders of urban roads, making their nests—and chicks—prime targets for regional photographers. As the owls “recycle” abandoned nests of other animal species, their popularity wavers from year to year with the accessibility of their roosts. While natural barriers (such as creeks) often temper this accessibility to a manageable extent, a mating pair will occasionally find their nest a bit too exposed for comfort.
Such is the case with the owls currently roosting at the corner of 120th Avenue and Federal Boulevard in Westminster, one of Denver’s northern suburbs. The adult pair, which bore a successful clutch of two young owls, has been at the roadside location for over two months. Within the past few weeks, however, the rapid growth of the chicks has drawn daily paparazzi to photograph and view the birds. At the peak of the popularity rush, the asphalt shoulder was commonly packed with over a dozen vehicles, their occupants wandering near to and often immediately beneath the tree in order to get a better look. A dilapidated cardboard sign requesting that people leave the family in peace—the owls’ sole means of protection for some time—was typically disregarded or overlooked.
While the viewers’ interest in the owls did not arise out of a desire to do them harm, the stress of having a constant stream of people in their presence was beginning to build on the birds. The threat of humans near their roost, coupled with the fact that most viewing took place during the owls’ resting hours, pushed the adults close to abandoning their nest before their chicks were ready to fledge. Jennifer Churchill, regional public information officer for the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), acknowledges the irony: “It's only natural for people to want to connect with wildlife, especially when they've never seen a particular species in the city. But, many times, we ‘love them to death’ by getting too close to take pictures, or just to see what they look like, and making a lot of noise and scaring them…ultimately interfering with their natural and biological cycle.”
With the future of the great horned owl family in peril, the DOW decided to step in. Working with Westminster open space supervisor Rod Larsen, officials established a much more definitive barrier along the shoulder near the owls’ nest, even calling on Westminster’s police force to temporarily enforce the “No Parking” zone. The results have attracted a lot of inquisitive attention from those driving by, but the constant flow of visitors to the owls nest has successfully been stopped, allowing the family to continue raising their young for several more weeks in relative peace.
The sight of the great horned owl chicks peering out at the blockaded road bordering their home will continue to greet Westminster residents and visitors for some time. It serves as a reminder not only of the incredible wildlife that can be viewed within the state, but also of the importance of conserving animals and their habitat. As Churchill advises, “There is a fine balance between enjoying wildlife and harassing wildlife…[F]or the benefit and protection of all wildlife species, it's important that people take the time to learn about and respect wildlife and its habitat [so that we can] enjoy wildlife for generations to come.”
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