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49th CES, Texas A&M contractors build artificial burrows

Warning signs are displayed near an artificial owl burrow, Oct. 22, 2020, on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Artificial burrows were built away from hazardous areas on base to encourage owls to live in a safer setting. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quion Lowe)

49th CES, Texas A&M contractors build artificial burrows

A burrowing owl stands near an artificial burrow behind the base chapel, Feb. 2, 2019, on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The artificial burrow behind the base chapel was the first burrow occupied by an Owl who is now affectionately named “Deacon.”(Courtesy photo)

49th CES, Texas A&M contractors build artificial burrows

A burrowing owl stands near an artificial burrow, Feb. 2, 2019, on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Burrowing Owls are a species of conservation concern in New Mexico and have a natural habitat on Holloman. (Courtesy photo)

49th CES, Texas A&M contractors build artificial burrows

Capt. Christina Behrens, 49th Civil Engineer Squadron Installation Management commander, and Audrey Holstead, Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute research associate, inspect an artificial owl burrow, Oct. 22, 2020, on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The 49th CES has worked with contractors from Texas A&M to ensure the safety of burrowing owls on Holloman. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quion Lowe)

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

For members of the base chapel, there’s been a few feathery, unexpected guests in attendance for years now. The burrowing owl appropriately named “Deacon,” and his family, can often be seen in his artificial burrow, made by Team Holloman members and local professionals.

Although Holloman is a natural habitat for burrowing owls, there are some areas that would create a safety concern for birds and base populace. The 49th Civil Engineer Squadron, with the help of civilian contractors, have assumed this responsibility of ensuring the safety of burrowing owls on Holloman, as they are a species of conservation concern in the state of New Mexico.

Burrowing owls often live in burrows made by animals who are their natural prey, like prairie dogs. The decline of prairie dogs in the area have forced the owls to find refuge in various places on base, such as infrastructure around the airfield and ditches on the flight line.

In order to keep the owls safe and continue the mission, the 49th CES Installation Management Flight works with professionals from a nearby university to protect wildlife and adhere to the law.

“We decided to build artificial burrows to see if we could get them occupied by the owls; and to get them away from hazardous areas,” said Dr. Brian Pierce, Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute associate director. “We want to keep them in their natural habitat and we learned that owls have a higher chance of using artificial burrows that are relatively close by. The chicks hatched on base also tend to return to the general area that they are hatched. We want to make sure burrows are available in safe locations for them.”

These steps proved easier said than done. However, the team continued to use innovative thinking to complete their objective.

“We noticed right away that Holloman had used artificial burrows in the past, and they've all collapsed,” said Pierce. “After some research, we decided that polyvinyl chloride pipes are stronger than what was used before and aren’t a huge capital cost. We also added small cameras to see how many birds are in them. The camera helps us check on the birds, see how they’re doing and see if they have migrated so we can clean the burrows.”

The efforts of the joint team shows dedication to keeping the mission going, but also protecting all life on base.

“It's our duty to make sure we protect the wildlife on base,” said Capt. Cristina Behrens, 49th CES Installation Management deputy. “I learn new things from our Environmental team every day. I would anticipate the general base population is unaware of these initiatives our team is working to preserve animal and plant species on this base.”

While it is important that Holloman cares for wildlife, the innovative manner in which they approached this compromise sets a precedent for organizations in the future, in similar situations.

“The success shown by the base in protecting wildlife while completing the mission, and doing it within the law, is so cool,” said Pierce. “Not only does it provide an example for other Air Force installations within burrowing owl range, but you're providing information to state agencies, local communities, and private landowners as well. Here's something you can do, that has a minimum impact on your land and it helps the birds. So it's a win, win.”