The burrowing owl is a small, ground-dwelling bird known for its bobbing head movements and tendency to stand on one foot atop its home. As the owls declined throughout the west due to loss of habitat and other reasons, they congregated in California’s Imperial Valley. But now the Los Angeles Times reports that the burrowing owls are disappearing from the valley at a rapid rate.

Wildlife advocates have called for a state investigation as to why the burrowing owl population has so quickly declined. The owl has gone from a population of 5,600 pairs in 1990s to 4,879 pairs in 2007 and 3,557 pairs in 2008. Jeff Miller is a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "We've seen a 27% drop in one year alone. If there is a similar drop next year, this bird could disappear in California." Miller blames loss of habitat to agriculture and water transfer, while car strikes, pesticides, and attacks from cats and dogs are also possible culprits. Further, the owls snack on ground squirrels, which are currently under siege from a state-run eradication program.

The burrowing owl is a petite creature, ranging from nine to eleven inches in height. It is most active at dusk and dawn. They are adept hunters and have been known to chase down insects on foot. The owls can hover in mid-air over an unsuspecting prey or glide silently down from high atop a stalking perch. In the Imperial Valley, they are known to dine on ground squirrels. But the undiscerning bird will have been known to eat prey from scorpions and cottontail rabbits. Also, they are the only owls who will eat fruit and seeds.

California previously rejected a 2003 petition by environmental groups to place the burrowing owl on the endangered species list, in part because some experts believed the bird to be doing well. This time, conservationists hope the state will reconsider its decision.

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California burrowing owl population declines at alarming rate
Burrowing owls in the Imperial Valley are disappearing despite living in a former stronghold.