Friday, January 16, 2009

In Search of Palilas

Searching for unusual or rare birds can be like a treasure hunt. You get directions from a book, a magazine, or a friend and follow them very carefully, word by word. If you are lucky, the prize will be at the specified location—the X on the map. The directions can sometimes be pretty cryptic, turn left where there are no buildings, go east at the fence, keep to the right when the path diverges, but usually when you get to the area in question the ambiguous phrases become clear and you realize that they are very precise. The most memorable treasure hunt my husband and I ever went on was on the big island of Hawaii where we climbed the slopes Mauna Kea in search of the endemic and endangered Palila. We never found it, probably because we took the wrong fork, but after that, in our family looking for something precious or ephemeral became synonymous with "searching for Palilas."

Friday I went on one such treasure hunt in search of this Burrowing Owl. Of all the owls in North America, this is probably the one that is the easiest to find because it likes to sit and stare in the daylight, and it is not very afraid of humans. That is, it is easy to find in its habitat area which would be agricultural land, the desert, or open grassland. You would not expect to find it in a city, especially a city the size of Los Angeles, and yet that's where this little fellow was found. Yvetta sent me the directions and after following them to the letter, there he was.

The Burrowing Owl is not endangered in California but it is of "special concern" because its numbers are dwindling due to habitat loss and human attempts to eradicate Ground Squirrels and Prairie Dogs which share its habitat. They both like golf courses and airport grassland, for example. And although they can be found in the daylight, their coloring camouflages them very well with their surroundings so much so that if I had not known that this owl was where Yvetta said he was, I would never have seen him.

However, due to concerns about this fellow's safety, I cannot give you the map of his location. It would be so nice if he were to make L.A. his permanent home, but there are just too many people and dogs and cats in the city for me to have too much hope for that. And I have had too many experiences on my birding expeditions of humans not caring about the animals and birds in the wild (feeding the squirrels Cheetos, of all things, right in front of the Do-Not-Feed-the-Animals sign at Yosemite comes to mind), and not only not caring but deliberately trying to harm these wonderful creatures. We have become so divorced from nature, particularly those of us who live in the city, that we have no idea of nature's ways, the diversity of wildlife, and the joy and inner peace that comes from observing wildlife, and the realization that we are part of that same nature.

That being said, I also agree with groups like the Audubon Society (check out this article about birdstrikes and the recent near disaster in New York, and this NY Times article on the same subject) that by educating the public about these wonders of nature that are all around us, people will show more concern for the birds and animals that share our city and our world with us. At least that is the theory.


  1. The owl is so cute. I read Carl Hiaasen's novel, Hoot, about a group of kids trying to save a colony of burrowing owls from developers. But I never thought to look up what the owls actually look like.

    Thanks for posting the picture. I will show it to Iris, who loves Hiaasen's books as much as I do.

  2. The look of the owl is one of....I'm watching you!! I have to agree we are divorced from nature. However I also fall into the list of feeding the birds and animals... However I have never feed them cheetos.

    DIL AZ