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Keywords:

  • agroecosystem;
  • Athene cunicularia;
  • behavioral responses;
  • burrowing owl;
  • California;
  • field experiment;
  • Imperial Valley;
  • short-term displacement;
  • survey methods

Abstract

Monitoring wildlife populations often involves intensive survey efforts to attain reliable estimates of population size. Such efforts can increase disturbance to animals, alter detection, and bias population estimates. Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) are declining across western North America, and information on the relative effects of potential survey methods on owl behaviors is needed. We designed a field experiment to compare burrowing owl flight distances, times displaced, and probabilities of being displaced between 4 potential population survey methods (single walking surveyor, single vehicle stop, single vehicle stop with 2 surveyors, and double vehicle stop with 2 surveyors), and an experimental control in the agricultural matrix of Imperial Valley, California. Between 25 April and 1 May 2008, we randomly applied survey methods to 395 adult male owls during daylight hours (0700 hours through 1900 hours). All survey methods increased odds of displacing owls from perches. Survey methods with observers outside the vehicle were 3 times more likely to displace an owl than a single vehicle stop where observers remained inside the vehicle. Owls were displaced farther distances by all survey methods compared to control trials, but distances and time displaced did not differ among survey methods. We recommend that surveys for counting owls during the breeding season in agroecystems like the Imperial Valley where high densities of owls nest primarily along the borders of fields be conducted using single vehicle stops with or without 2 surveyors, depending on conditions for locating owls from roads. © 2011 The Wildlife Society.