Saturday, November 27, 2021

You Want to Build A House but Owls Are on Your Lot: What Do You Do?

What Do You Do?

Photos by Jean Hall

The presence of burrowing owls on your property does NOT prevent you from selling the property or building a home. Burrowing owls are a protected species, but there is a safe, easy and legal process to remove burrows from your property prior to construction.

Burrowing owls are grassland birds and require open space to nest in. Though they historically lived in the prairies of Florida, they have moved into coastal cities like Marco Island as previously forested land has been cleared for development. Burrowing owls dig their own burrows, which they use for nesting and shelter. They are wild animals, and though they can be enticed to nest in specific locations through the use of starter burrows, they most often dig whenever and wherever they feel is suitable—usually on vacant lots. 

In Marco Island, 95% of all burrowing owl burrows are on vacant lots, likely because they are the widest open spaces left on the island, and most grass is sparse and easy for owls to dig through. Sometimes these burrows get in the way of construction—they can be up against sea walls, or right in the middle of the lot where homes are built. Because their burrows are protected by law, a common question we get is “What do I do with these owls?”

If you are considering building on your property that has burrowing owls, you should be aware of the proper procedures, which are:

  • Burrowing owls AND their burrows are both protected by state law. You cannot collapse a burrow without a permit.
  • If your construction is near a burrow but doesn’t require the burrow to be removed (ex. repairing a seawall), you may not need a permit but will instead be required to stay 33 feet away from the burrow during nesting season, and 10 feet away outside of nesting season.
  • Only qualified persons may collapse burrowing owl burrows. You will need to hire an environmental consultant who is registered with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to remove burrows.
  • You will need to apply for an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) through FWC. Your environmental consultant will usually handle the permit application for you.
  • Once you have the permit in hand, the burrow will be checked by an environmental consultant for eggs or chicks with a special camera scope. If any are found, you must wait until the chicks are old enough to fly before construction can begin. If no eggs or chicks are found, the burrow can be collapsed, and construction can immediately begin.
  • FWC charges a mitigation fee of $1,900 per cluster of burrows removed. This fee can be dropped to $0 if starter burrows are installed on the property after construction is complete.

Misinformation is one of the biggest threats to burrowing owls. Some landowners are deeply misinformed and have gone to extreme and illegal measures to remove owls themselves, through poison or running over burrows with vehicles. Harming owls or their burrows is a criminal offense and can be punished by large fines and jail time.

You can find more information about burrowing owls and the permitting process at FWC’s website at If you have questions about burrowing owls, you can call Audubon Western Everglades at 239-643-7822.

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