After two years of success with an online “crowdsourcing” effort to help track giraffes in Kenya, San Diego Zoo Global is launching a new citizen science program in Southern California — inviting the public to help save an important bird species in San Diego County by classifying photos online. Western burrowing owls are found in grasslands and prairies throughout North America, but local populations in San Diego are at risk of going extinct. Starting May 13, anyone with a computer or a smartphone can visit wildwatchburrowingowl.org on Zooniverse, the largest online platform for crowdsourced volunteer research. Online participants will help researchers by classifying thousands of photos from remote-activated trail cameras — normally only seen by conservation scientists — to help follow a family of western burrowing owls as they set up their burrows, hatch and raise chicks, catch prey and protect their domain.
“We are very excited to launch Wildwatch Burrowing Owl and invite volunteers to contribute,” Colleen Wisinski, conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, said in a press release. “We use trail cameras to gain valuable information about how the burrowing owl population in San Diego County is doing, including how many owlets are raised each year and how much food they are able to find.”
More than 10 million images have been captured by motion-activated cameras in San Diego County. After collecting the photos, researchers would normally catalog each image, identify and count the birds, and document their behavior — a task that could take them years to complete. Wildwatch Burrowing Owl allows the public to help view and sort these photos, which will save valuable time, allow scientists to move forward with their conservation work faster and collect a wealth of conservation data.
Volunteers will be asked to identify what is pictured in each new trail camera photo by choosing from a list. Every image will eventually be viewed by multiple volunteers, to ensure that photos that are not needed are filtered out.
Western burrowing owls are small, long-legged birds that live in open landscapes of North and South America. Unlike other owl species that live in trees, these owls make their homes in abandoned California ground squirrel burrows, prairie dog burrows or rattlesnake dens. They use their long legs to further excavate these underground tunnels, creating enough room to store food and lay eggs.
As burrowing owl populations continue to decline throughout western regions of North America, the state of California has listed them as a Species of Special Concern due to multiple factors, including continued habitat loss. Burrowing owls are grassland specialists and require short, open grassland to thrive. Unfortunately, intact native grasslands are rare in Southern California, and the suitable habitats that remain are severely impacted by increased human development.
San Diego Zoo Global takes part in a multi-agency burrowing owl conservation strategy that has been developed over the past eight years. The forward-looking plan includes monitoring the existing population while searching for suitable habitats to establish new colonies throughout San Diego County. Conservationists are working to help birds that could be impacted by planned development by establishing additional secure breeding nodes in the county — reducing their risk of local extinction.
“Because we gather so many images every year, we rely on the help of volunteers to comb through all of the photos and help us identify what is in each one. Now, we have the ability to enlist the help of even more citizen scientists and share our passion for burrowing owl conservation,” Wisinski said.
The public can also view San Diego Zoo Global’s new Burrowing Owl Cams — a live video feed from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park that lets viewers watch a pair of off-exhibit burrowing owls as they establish and manage their burrow. Along with being able to watch the birds’ above-ground activities, viewers are also led into the dark to witness what goes on inside these birds’ underground home, where eggs are incubated and chicks are raised. The new Aviary Cam and Burrow Cam are viewable online at sdzsafaripark.org/cams/burrowing-owl-cams.