If it were up to David H. Johnson, he’d be out of the burrow-making business.
Instead, he stands on a wind-swept prairie, shovel in hand. He wipes the sweat from his brow and surveys the sagebrush as it stretches across the rolling hills. His eyes scan for any flutter of small feathers.
He doesn’t see anything and keeps digging in the loose sand. This wide-open stretch of sage and sand and shrubs was once riddled with burrows. For millennia, animals like badgers and prairie dogs pockmarked the Columbia River plateau with burrows.
Johnson has been watching those burrows disappear, one by one. And now, as he stomps his spade into the sand, he knows that there is not a single natural burrow left. He knows because he’s counted and tracked them for years.
The only burrows around here are the ones he’s installed himself, one at a time.
Johnson builds his burrows out of plastic barrels, five-gallon buckets, wire mesh and irrigation tubes. They don’t look like much — sort of a backyard DIY project. And when he buries his buckets in the ground, they look like just holes in the ground.
But these burrows made of buckets are the last hope for a small population of owls.
Burrowing owls are disappearing across North America at a rate of 2 to 3 percent each year. Johnson has come to an unlikely place to do this work: a patch of wind-swept prairie surrounded by barbed wire and row upon row of concrete bunkers that once stockpiled America's deadliest chemical weapons.
'I Look Like An Owl'
There is probably no one who knows as much or cares as much for these small little owls as David H. Johnson, or "DJ" as his colleagues call him.
“People say I look like an owl, even before they know my connection to them,” Johnson says.
Johnson is a self-described “owl person.” It started one moonlight-night in Minnesota when he was just a boy. He was camping when an owl swooped down and perched on his tent. Silhouetted by the moon, it called for some 20 minutes. Johnson listened, transfixed. In those moments, he felt a deep and personal connection with the owl. It was as if, he felt, the owl was calling just to him with a message he was supposed to hear.
"And so I didn’t pick owls," he says. "They picked me."
Johnson has devoted his life to researching and advocating for owls. After 41 years in the field, he’s the director of the Global Owl Project. His expertise is called on internationally.
One of the most significant calls came from an unexpected place — the Umatilla Chemical Depot. Since its construction in World War II, the Army base had been a top-security, off-limits stretch of sagebrush, dotted by massive concrete bunkers.
Each concrete bunker is buried under several feet of earth. With their heavy covering of dirt, thick concrete fronts, and massive steel doors, the bunkers look like they were designed to be aircraft hangars, camouflaged and protected from bombing raids by enemy planes. But these bunkers weren’t designed to withstand explosions from above; they were built to guard against explosions from within.
Since World War II, they held the Army’s high explosives and munitions. During the Cold War, they held 12 percent of America’s deadliest chemical weapons, like mustard gas and sarin.
Today, all of the 999 bunkers are empty except for one. Johnson uses this as his workshop.
Hard To Recover From Zero
The Umatilla Chemical Depot called Johnson about a decade ago. Employees there had noticed that the burrowing owls had all but vanished.
"When I came to the depot to work on the burrowing owl project, there were three or four pairs and we knew this was the last of them,” Johnson recounts. “And it’s really hard to recover from zero. So then the question is: what do you do?”
Johnson discovered that the problem was a lack of burrows. Burrowing owls don’t dig burrows. In fact, owls in general do not build nests. Rather, they borrow.
In the prairie, where there are no trees to perch in, these little owls adapted to what was once available and plentiful: thousands of burrows left by badgers and prairie dogs and the like.
But as the populations of these animals were wiped out or displaced by human development, the burrows they once dug began to disappear. When the natural burrows began to disappear, so did the little owls that depended upon them.
“Not enough nest holes, no reproduction. Boom, they decline,” Johnson explains. “So we put in artificial burrows to rescue that.”
Now, Johnson has created 182 artificial burrows on the depot.
To Catch An Owl
“We put in the first burrows here as a rescue mission and it quickly turned into an opportunity,” he says.
Johnson soon realized that he had one of the largest populations of burrowing owls in a relatively controlled location — a perfect opportunity to launch new research and better understand the burrowing owls.
Johnson could make field observations from blinds, but in order to study the owls up close, he has to be able to catch them. This requires creative thinking.
Johnson heads out in his white van across the depot. He stops at his first site. There are tracks in front of the burrow. Also, he notes, some dried coyote scat and chunks of corn cob that an owl has found and hauled here as front-door décor.
“Someone has claimed this one,” Johnson explains. “They decorate like this to show how tough they are.”
It’s this owl machismo that Johnson uses to catch his owls.
He places a small mp3 player inside the plastic irrigation tube entrance of his DIY burrow. Then he places a wire box with a spring-loaded door in front of the tube. Then he covers his trap with dirt.
The mp3 player repeats “coo-coo, coo-coo.” It’s a soft call, much like an antique coo-coo clock.
Johnson leaves. But a GoPro camera is rolling to record what happens next.
Within a few minutes, a male owl swoops down and halts. He bobs his head, assessing the new addition to his burrow and the repeated coo-coo coming from within.
He paces back and forth, cocking his head, pausing. He looks at the camera quizzically and then back to the burrow’s opening.
After about 10 minutes of pacing, the owl ducks into the burrow. The small wire gate drops. Johnson has his owl.
Johnson gleams with glee and proclaims: “When you start thinking like an owl, they’re yours!”
North For The Winter
Johnson’s studies have revealed some unexpected results.
“We knew that they were migratory; we didn’t have any idea where they went,” he said.
He put geolocators on to identify their migrations. He assumed the burrowing owls, like many other birds, migrated to warmer southern locations during the frigid winters. “Of course you would think that,” he says.
They found that the females flew south, as expected, but that the males actually flew north.
“It was like: what?” exclaims Johnson. “I thought something was wrong with the data.”
It turned out his data were correct. Johnson discovered that the males stuck around the cold north so they could be first back to their burrows. The best burrow meant the best chance for attracting a female and successfully raising a family.
Out Of The Burrow-Making Business
After nine years working on the depot, Johnson has brought the population of burrowing owls back from the brink. This year he captured 96 adults and banded 172 babies owls.
“We’ve found that if you want to use artificial burrows, it works,” he concludes, but then poses the larger question: “Do you want to run artificial burrows for a hundred years?”
The sun sets across the depot. Meadowlarks dip over the grass. Johnson gathers his mp3 players and traps, loads them back into his white van, and rattles down the dirt road — barbed wire and empty guard towers silhouetted on the horizon.
Tonight he’ll stay up and download his data, working like a true night owl. In the morning, he’ll head out again.
“Is it a stop-gap measure? Yes. Can we learn a lot from it? Absolutely. No question,” he states.
Then Johnson muses: “But if I had my way, there’d be a return of burrowing mammals like badgers, lots of natural burrows. And I’d be out of the burrow-making business.”