Wild at Heart raptor rescue makes big efforts for a tiny desert owl species

By TARA ALATORRE –

CAVE CREEK – In 1991 Bob and Sam Fox of Cave Creek wanted to save just one barn owl. Thousands of rescued birds and 27 years later the husband and wife have transformed their property into an aviary and raptor rescue, providing free care for injured or sick birds 24-hours-a-day seven-days-a-week, while also proactively leading conservation efforts for native owl species in Arizona.

Wild at Heart is a non-profit organization operating with a crew of dedicated volunteers and veterinarians that work daily onsite at the Fox’s property caring for a plethora of raptors with many different specialized needs with the goal of rehabilitating and releasing birds. The facility is also a sanctuary for animals that can’t be released back into the wild and the epicenter of species recovery for a small, unique desert species of owl that is fighting to merely exist in Arizona.

Wild at Heart (WAH) is working to recover native populations of the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and started Arizona’s first-ever captive breeding program for it in 2007 with five breeding pairs.

Pictured: A map that shows the pygmy-owls historic and current range in Arizona. The yellow indicates where the owl can be found in the wild today and the areas marked with diagonal lines indicates where they were located historically. Map courtesy of USFWS
Pictured: A map that shows the pygmy-owls historic and current range in Arizona. The yellow indicates where the owl can be found in the wild today and the areas marked with diagonal lines indicates where they were located historically.
Map courtesy of USFWS

The owl once had habitats across the state, historically found throughout much of south and central Arizona, but in the last few decades their numbers have been declining due to habitat loss and drought.

“Since there is no more contiguous saguaro cactus forest there is less habitat pathways,” Fox said about the owls declining populations in the state, while noting there are other populations in Texas and parts of northern Mexico.

The Arizona population of pygmy-owls became an endangered species in 1997, and by 2002 only 18 were detected in the state by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) surveys.

However, by 2006 the small owls were removed from the endangered species list by USFWS following a court decision that ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought on by homebuilders. That court ruling determined Arizona’s pygmy-owls were not a distinct population and therefore did not merit protection under the Endangered Species Act.

By 2007, only six nesting pairs were documented by the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) and the survival rate for hatchlings was very low, with no documented pygmy-owls hatched in 2003 and 2004. So USFWS and AGFD captured nine hatchling pygmy-owls and one adult pygmy-owl and entrusted WAH with launching the first-ever breeding program for the small desert raptors in the spring of 2007.

There are only about 50 cactus pygmy-owls in the wild in Arizona and Wild at Heart is hoping to increase their population through its captive breeding program. The desert pygmy- owl is the second smallest owl species in the world at only about 7-inches tall when fully matured. Photo courtesy of Wild at Heart
There are only about 50 cactus pygmy-owls in the wild in Arizona and Wild at Heart is hoping to increase their population through its captive breeding program. The desert pygmy- owl is the second smallest owl species in the world at only about 7-inches tall when fully matured.
Photo courtesy of Wild at Heart

“The issue was no one had ever bred Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls in captivity and we did not have a lot of information, but we had other owls and we were familiar with their breeding patterns. We just kind of took a shot at it,” Fox said.

The cactus pygmy-owl is one of the smallest species of owls in the world at less than 7-inches tall and weighing only about 2-ounces when it is full grown. The little owl is unique because it only nests in saguaros or mesquite trees, it has tail feathers much like a hawk and it’s diurnal, meaning it hunts during the day. It is also a fierce predator and can successfully hunt prey larger than itself.

Although the pygmy-owl was de-listed, federal and state wildlife agencies continued its efforts to conserve the species in Arizona. Non-profit organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity, have made continued unsuccessful efforts to re-list the owl as an endangered or threatened species.

“There are probably less than 50 in the wild in Arizona,” Fox said.

The captive breeding program is a priority action identified by USFWS and AGFD and they secured the necessary permits once the pygmy-owl’s federal protections were removed so WAH could ascertain if captive breeding was feasible.

“Really the original goal of the project was to see if captive breeding of pygmy-owls was even possible, and if we have that tool available,” said Ken Jacobson, a spokesman with AGFD in an interview. “WAH has been incredibly instrumental, he [Fox] has definitely documented and designed it.”

To date WAH has hatched 68 pygmy-owls, and in 2016 it released 10 back into the wild.

The pygmy-owls that were released were successfully tracked for a few months until the transmitters batteries failed. Three were killed through predation, but there was an unconfirmed sighting of a nesting pair this Spring, according to Fox.

“What he is doing up there with pygmy owls will give us a management tool for them in the future. That is one small part that WAH does for wildlife,” Jacobson said.

Although there have been some mortalities over the last decade WAH has been facilitating the breeding program, Fox has made some crucial discoveries about the species. One of the biggest lessons Fox learned was that female pygmy owls will kill and eat males they do not like when attempting to mate, which is unlike any other owl species he has observed.

The first big hurdle in WAH’s breeding program was how to introduce potential breeding pairs without risking the male owl’s life by keeping him trapped in a cage with a hostile female that did not want to mate.

“We created a flyaway access, so the male could visit the female and if necessary he could leave. Once he was out of her territory she had no issues, so that worked out pretty well,” Fox said.

WAH has also been successful at documenting the correct humidity levels for hatching pygmy owl eggs. In the first few years WAH was not very successful in hatching eggs, until they figured out the optimal moisture levels.

“It’s been a slow and gradual progress building this up. Our big issue of course is finding funding for this,” Fox said while explaining that WAH operates completely on donations only, and its food costs alone are about $600 a day.

A few years ago, WAH started using small donated cigar humidifiers to house the pygmy-owl nests, which has really helped stabilize humidity levels and saves a lot of water.

Currently, there are 21 pygmy owls in WAH’s captive breeding program including four owls that were hatched onsite in the last two years. The breeding program has been so successful that the Phoenix Zoo asked for Fox’s assistance in setting up a habitat for their new captive pygmy-owls this year.

“WAH is all about what is best for our wildlife and that includes knowledge and experience,” Fox said. “Many organizations tend to hoard their information we see that as wrong attitude to have, and we should all be in this for one thing and that is for the benefit of wild populations.”

If you would like to learn more about the WAH’s pygmy owl program, would like to donate or volunteer visit wildatheartraptors.org. WAH is also a part of Amazon Gives and Amazon Smiles donation programs.

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