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Whoooo gives a hoooot about western burrowing owls? Could it be yoooooooo?

Western burrowing owl
Western burrowing owls, keeping an eye, or two eyes, on things.

Zoo works to save increasingly rare subspecies from extinction in San Diego County

San Diego Zoo Global’s online giraffe-tracking program is branching out to help an animal right in our backyard: Athene cunicularia hypugaea, the western burrowing owl.

This subspecies has have been declining in California and is at risk of going extinct in San Diego County. So the zoo said Monday it has asked animal lovers the world over to log on to identify and classify photos.

Anyone with a computer or a smartphone can visit wildwatchburrowingowl.org to perform volunteer research. The goal is to follow western burrowing owl families as they set up burrows, raise chicks, catch prey and protect their domain.

Participants will classify photos from remote-activated cameras. Normally conservationists would themselves identify and count the birds in each image, and record their behavior.

But with a backlog of more than 10 million photos in San Diego County, that task could take years, Colleen Wisinski, conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, said in a statement.

And even with help, they’re still struggling. But as with the giraffes, crowdsourcing concerned citizen scientists from around the world can make a difference, she said.

“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,” Wisinski said. “Now, we have the ability to enlist the help of even more citizen scientists and share our passion for burrowing owl conservation.”

This program extends the zoo’s eight-year involvement in a local burrowing owl conservation effort with a number of agencies. This includes not only monitoring existing birds, but looking for new locations to establish additional colonies throughout the county.

Western burrowing owls live in open areas, where they live in ground nests. They take over the abandoned burrows of ground squirrels, prairie dogs and rattlesnakes. Using their long legs, they enlarge these burrows, creating space to store food and lay eggs.

Since burrowing owls live in the open, development there takes away habitat. Conservationists plan to mitigate this loss by placing new secure breeding areas in suitable open spaces that are not targeted by development.