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Go Fighting Owls!

November 17, 2009

The Piper High School Bengals never had a chance. The Fighting Owls dug in at the 25-yard line and never gave any ground. Literally. A few weeks ago a pair of Burrowing Owls dug a hole in the middle of a football field, forcing the Piper High team to play out their season on the road.

As a species of special concern, the pint-sized bird benefits from the protection of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Birds on the field? No game today.

Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) are found throughout the western US and once inhabited the open prairies of central Florida. Cape Coral, a sprawling, nearly tree-less city on Florida’s southwest coast has the largest population of the ground-dwelling raptors. As development persists in the sunshine state, more and more of the owls preferred habitat is lost which makes the rare sighting at the high school in Sunrise, FL all the more interesting.

Burrows are occupied year-round with nesting occurring from February through July. These birds were firmly entrenched on the green gridiron and clearly had plans to stay.

In the western US the birds may reuse gopher holes while in Florida they recycle old Gopher Tortoise holes. In this case they did the digging themselves.

The owls can be tolerant of some human interaction. While my momentary presence was simply annoying, football players and cheering fans would clearly be apocalyptic. So on a quiet Monday morning I was escorted on the field by Linda, a Piper guidance director. Here we found the mouth of the burrow and a mound of dirt bisected perfectly by the white hash mark of the 25-yard line. A solitary owl peered out – its eyes matching the yellow CAUTION tape that encircled its new den.

The burrow would last only a few more days. The students created a starter burrow in a more appropriate place nearby and with the approval from wildlife officials the athletic department filled in the hole. With luck the owls will take the hint and Piper High School will have a pair of new mascots. Go Fighting Owls!

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