Saturday, May 14, 2011

Brave Little Bird in a Big, Unfriendly Desert

Brandy and I have a new feathered friend.  Perhaps "acquaintance" is a better word.

Brandy, our six-month-old boxer-shepherd puppy, is in training to be a responsible canine citizen in natural places (I can't say "the wild" because, thanks to The Worst Congressman in History [see previous post] there is no "wild" in southern New Mexico).

Sometimes, on our way to a favorite piece of desert, we stop at a flat, open space on the desert fringe to play a game of "fetch."

That's where I first spotted our new friend, a desert burrowing owl, standing guard over its nest.  Typical of the species, this one is surprisingly bold and approachable.  Standing stock still, it allowed me to get within four feet without flinching.

I threw the ball farther and farther away from its burrow so that Brandy wouldn't catch sight or scent of it and give chase.  While not listed as threatened or endangered in New Mexico, as it is in several other states, the burrowing owl is considered a "species of concern."  That means  further biological research and field study are needed to resolve their conservation status, or they are considered sensitive, rare, or declining. I watched a pet kill an owl once; I don't want Brandy to be tempted to do the same.

On a recent visit Brandy crossed the invisible line between him and the owl; it took flight, soaring 20 or 30 meters away from the burrow.  Brandy began to give chase, but I called him back. As soon as we backed away the bird returned to the vicinity of its burrow, scolding us with loud "chuck-chick" calls.  It stood as tall as it could on its long legs, making itself look bigger than its actual size (8 or 9 inches tall).

I admire the owl's pluck and courage.  It'll stand up to any predator, warning it away with "chucks" and sometimes screeches, but if the enemy crosses the invisible line it'll take flight and try to lure the predator as far as possible from the nest. 

Even where it's not listed, the burrowing owl population is declining, largely because of people.  We're encroaching on and destroying its habitat.  At first I thought it odd that  our owl had chosen our "fetch field" for its home, opting for a flat, open space rather than the deeper, more heavily vegetated desert.
Moments later I had my answer: a pick-up truck passed by on the nearby road, with two off-road machines in its bed.  The ATV people are all over the deep desert, cutting roads where there weren't any, savaging the habitat of countless desert dwellers including the burrowing owl, its food, and its predators.  Equal-opportunity habitat-destroyers.

Big contributors to the campaign funds of The Worst Congressman in History, whose name is Steve Pearce and who seems to hate every living thing except his fellow Republicans, especially the very, very rich ones in the extraction industries.  Drill, drill, drill.  Destroy, destroy, destroy.

I looked back at the burrowing owl, standing tall again and chucking at Brandy to stay away. Be safe, little bird, I thought.  Be bold and plucky and courageous.  I'm glad you can't understand how heavily the deck is stacked against you.

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