Endangered burrowing owls get head start

News Release / June 21, 2018 / Project number: 18-06-21

June 21, 2018 – Ralston, Alberta – National Defence / Canadian Armed Forces

Underground within a wildlife conservation area on Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield lives a very rare species that’s getting a head start in their new home with the help of scientists and soldiers.

A head-starting project for Burrowing Owls, an endangered species within Canada, achieved a milestone this spring with the release of eight adult owls into the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area.

There may be as few as 400 female/male pairs of Burrowing Owls remaining in the country, according to population estimates from Environment and Climate Change Canada  (ECCC).

The Burrowing Owl head-starting process began in 2016 when owlets were taken from the Base and surrounding lands as part of a conservation program in partnership with the Calgary Zoo and ECCC.

Head starting is a conservation technique whereby owlets are captured in the wild, raised in captivity, and then later released back into their original habitat. The owls are released as one-year-old pairs to breed in their new nests. This is the first time an endangered species has been released onto the Base after spending time being cared for in captivity.

The goal of this cutting-edge project is to determine if the head-starting process will improve the survival rates of young owls, in the hope of ultimately giving this endangered population a crucial boost in Canada.  

Now in 2018, some of the owls have come full circle and have been released to their parents’ original nesting grounds within the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area. 

Burrowing Owls are the only birds of prey in Canada that nest underground. The project team built artificial nest burrows to accommodate the new owls within the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area, not far from sites where wild Burrowing Owls continue to nest. Canadian Armed Forces members played an integral role in the project by safely clearing burrowing sites of any potential hazards, and digging the burrows with the guidance of scientists from the Calgary Zoo, ECCC and the Base.

The CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area was selected as the ideal location for this project, because it contains natural habitat for Burrowing Owls. They have been faring better in this protected area than in many other sites in Canada.  


“One of the most unique aspects of this project is the collaboration between Canadian Armed Forces members and environmental experts from so many agencies. CFB Suffield is honoured to support Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Calgary Zoo with this ground-breaking project by providing access to the habitat within the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area and providing logistical support.” “inline quote content here" 

Danny Laganière, Base Environmental Officer, CFB Suffield

“Endangered species like Burrowing Owls need our help, and they need it now. Novel partnerships can be extremely powerful to enable science and trigger decisive action.  Who would think that the Calgary Zoo would be working with the Department of National Defence, as well as Environment and Climate Change Canada, to help save species? Indeed, we now literally stand shoulder to shoulder releasing burrowing owls into the wild. We are so proud to work together to restore this precious part of our Canadian natural heritage.” “inline quote content here” 

Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Director of Conservation & Science, Calgary Zoo

“This project is a good example of how collaboration among the partners can have a positive effect for recovery of a species. Releasing the captive-reared young back into the wild is definitely helping to boost population numbers.” “inline quote content here” 

Dr. Troy Wellicome, Senior Species at Risk Biologist, Environment and Climate Change Canada

Quick Facts

  •  Burrowing Owls are small, predatory birds that weigh approximately 160 grams (weighing a little more than a baseball), and are similar in height to a pigeon. The Burrowing Owls studied within the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area can migrate as far as Mexico.
  •  CFB Suffield is located in southern Alberta, approximately 50 kilometres west of Medicine Hat. CFB Suffield is the largest military training area in Canada, measuring 2,700 square kilometres, and is host to some of the largest live-fire training exercises in the country.
  • The CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area is significant due to its substantial size of 458 square kilometres. Unlike any other military Base in Canada, CFB Suffield is the only Base to have a conservation area within its boundaries managed by the Department of National Defence. No ground military training occurs within this area to protect the integrity of native grasslands and wildlife habitat. This controlled access area is not open to the public.


Natalie Finnemore, Public Affairs Officer, CFB Suffield, Office: 403-544-4405, Cell: 403-594-1683, Natalie.Finnemore@forces.gc.ca

Trish Exton-Parder, Media Relations Lead, Calgary Zoo, Office: 403-232-9381, Cell: 403-371-9075, TrishEP@calgaryzoo.com

 Media Relations, Environment and Climate Change Canada 819-938-3338 or 1-844-836-7799 (toll free) ec.media.ec@canada.ca

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