UMATILLA, Ore. - David H. Johnson travels to the Pacific Northwest from Maryland several times a year, and May is hatching season.
He braves bumpy roads at the Umatilla Army Depot looking for owls living underground.
The burrowing owl is one of his specialties, a rare species that lives in hollowed out tunnels and caverns underground. Over time, burrowing owl habitat diminished, leaving just about three to four pairs left on the depot.
That’s when Johnson stepped in, helping build artificial burrows out of plastic tubs and tubing in 2008.
Since then, the owl population has flourished to about 60 mating pairs at the military facility.
“It's the best in the western US,” Johnson said.
On Friday, Johnson lead a small team to collect data, nests spread out over many acres of sandy grassland.
He pulled up the lid of a burrow, expertly reaching in and scooping up the mother bird, about 8 inches in height.
“Haven't seen you since last year,” Johnson said quietly.
At first, the bird squirmed and clicked its beak nervously. Johnson, holding it gently in two arms, scratched the owl’s head, brushing dirt off its beak.
“They like that,” Johnson explained. “It’s what they do to each other, so it shows we aren’t trying to hurt them.”
The group peered inside the hole, seeing about half a dozen wriggling white fluff balls, baby chicks around a day old.
Jeff Mach is part of the team helping check leg bands on the birds, measuring growth, age, and migration. He is the natural resources manager for the Oregon Military Department in connection with the Oregon National Guard. Mach first started helping Johnson with the Umatilla owl project seven years ago.
“I think they're pretty good neighbors,” Mach said. “And I'd like to encourage them.”
A big plus for the military is natural pest control.
Studies of the land, still used by tens of thousands of troops every year, show areas of owl habitat have drastically lower rodent populations, which pose risk of Hantavirus.
According to Johnson, scientists are also looking at owl wings and feathers to develop quieter planes and unpiloted drones.
Closer to the edge of the depot, Johnson showed KAPP-KVEW crews another owl find. Perched inside a rundown watch tower, a family of barn owls. Dark sunken eyes stared back at Johnson from the speckled full-moon face of the mother bird.
A harsh hissing sound like sandpaper in a blender cut through the old rafters.
“That’s the sound the chicks make to sound intimidating,” Johnson said, laughing. “25 million years [of evolution], and that's the best you can do?”
Johnson said he will continue visiting the Umatilla Army Depot to maintain owl habitat. His next concern is making sure the land stays designated as a wildlife preserve.
To Johnson, this kind of conservation work is a dream.
“Since I was in second grade, I wanted to be a wildlife biologist,” he said in an October interview. “And here I am…60. Unbelievable! I am living the best life.”
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