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The story of the burrowing owl in British Columbia is a good news story. In 1980, the burrowing owl was declared extirpated (extinct) in the province. Now, however, the population of birds is growing thanks to a very successful captive breeding program established and operated by the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia (BOCS). Burrowing Owl Estate Winery’s proprietors, Jim and Midge Wyse, have been members and active supporters of the BOCS since 1993, and since 2002 their winery has contributed over one million dollars to the program.
The winery’s relationship with the burrowing owl originated as the result of a happy coincidence. In the early 1990s, the Wyses decided to name their new vineyard in honour of the endangered bird when they learned of a failed government attempt to re-establish the owl in the area from a roadside sign. Only a few weeks later they read a front-page story in the Vancouver Sun newspaper that described the plight of the birds. They got in touch with Mike Mackintosh, then Director of the Stanley Park Zoo, who was appealing for funding to continue a captive breeding program, and became involved in the program as volunteers initially, and as the winery grew, so did the financial support. The winery’s relationship with the BOCS continues to this day. Visitors to Burrowing Owl’s Wine Shop are asked to make a minimum $5.00 donation, all of which goes directly to the BOCS.
The burrowing owl’s numbers are growing in BC due to the highly successful captive breeding program run by the BOCS. The BOCS (a non-profit, community-based organization) has three breeding facilities located in the Fraser Valley, Kamloops, and the south Okanagan. Approximately 50 breeding pairs of yearling owls are released into the wild annually. The Society relies largely on volunteers, but it also employs trained biologists to assist in the work. The program also relies completely on the generosity of about a dozen ranchers, provincial land and conservancy groups, who have allowed the Society to install over 800 artificial burrows on southern BC’s grasslands during the past 20+ years.
The BOCS also runs an educational program involving “ambassador” owls that help raise awareness about the species, which enables it to be eligible for government grants. For many years, however, the Society has been supported chiefly by financial contributions from Burrowing Owl Estate Winery; Society President Mike Mackintosh describes the winery as the “lifeblood” of the Society, as it is the BOCS’ primary corporate sponsor.
Burrowing owls are somewhat unusual members of the owl family. They are a migrating bird with a long migration route taking them as far away as Southern California and Mexico. As their name suggests, they nest in underground burrows, and they use their exceptionally long legs to sprint after prey on the ground. While they share other owls’ preference for nocturnal hunting, burrowing owls also tend to be active during the day. They are unusually social birds, which makes them ideal to work in an awareness-raising role, as they easily become accustomed to being around humans.
Visitors to Burrowing Owl Estate Winery are sometimes surprised – and often delighted — to see a live burrowing owl perched on a portable roost in our Wine Shop alongside a Wildlife Biologist who manages the South Okanagan chapter of BOCS. These birds are not pets or mascots; their presence in our shop is intended to raise awareness of, and appreciation for, our feathered friends.
The birds that are chosen to be “ambassadors” for their species are usually the LOTH (Last One To Hatch), or the runts of litters, and they would not have survived in the wild. They spend a limited amount of time in the shop (3 – 4 appearances per year), and are always closely monitored for signs of stress by highly trained members of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society. Burrowing Owls are naturally social birds, and the ambassadors seem to enjoy the stimulation of meeting members of the public. We’ve seen for ourselves the positive impact that seeing these birds up-close can have on visitors, who frequently express enthusiasm about the preservation of the species and the conservation of its habitat upon meeting the birds.
For further information about burrowing owls, or to contribute to the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society’s captive breeding and recovery program, please visit www.burrowingowlbc.org.