A World of Owls and Humans

I’m sitting here with my laptop staring at a house across visible from my back yard. I wonder why I’ve not blogged about this before, but that house and I have a history.

Before the house was built the lot was being used by a burrowing owls.  The Southern Burrowing Owl is a protected species, and the only place in south Florida where such birds can be seen is in my hometown of Cape Coral.  Burrowing owls get their name because they are a grassland bird, rather than an arboreal species. They make their nests in the ground near a short perch. The biggest threats to these cute little owls are traffic and development.

Like all burrowing owl sites in Cape Coral, the nest was marked off and a big sign was placed by the burrow designating the area as protected. Often, a small, white perch is placed by the hole to help the bird hunt for tiny animals. So imagine my surprise one morning when I woke up and saw bulldozers and other earth moving machinery dumping sand for a new house right next to the owl nest!

An active environmentalist I immediately reported the incident to the Florida Fish and Wildlife agency. The agent was very interested, especially afteer I sent pictures of the nest and construction site, and informed me that he would do everything he could to resolve this case.  I would soon be involved in a moral and interesting sociological conundrum.

It turns out that the house was being built by Habitat for Humanity, and the organization had applied for permission to destroy the nest, claiming exigent circumstances.  It turns out that though an owl nest is protected habitat, the habitat can be destroyed if there’s a pressing human need to do so.  The day after I filed the complaint the nest was gone.

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Note: The original images associated with this post were corrupted and lost. This is a later image of burrowing owls living quite happily on my property…right across the street from the property mentioned in this post.

I’ve always been a supporter of Habitat for Humanity.  I appreciate an organization that dedicates itself to putting poor people in homes. But I’m also an advocate for the natural world, knowing that only the combination of a healthy environment and a healthy society can ensure healthy people.  So here’s a perfect case where the needs of people were weighed against the needs of an animal, and of course the needs of the people were determined to be primary.  The nest was destroyed (the rule states that in order for the nest to be destroyed there can be no eggs in the burrow.  I’m not sure how accountability is established in this matter, but I assume that the nest was empty when destroyed).

This case highlights the unfortunate consequences of antiquated vs modern values and norms. As I looked around the construction sight I noticed that there were seven empty lots on every side of the construction site.  The house could easily have been built one lot over and the nest remained undisturbed.  It would have been a perfect example of human needs being met without unwarranted destruction of nature.

But this could not happen, because the unfortunate owl happened to built her nest on a lot that was owned by Habitat for Humanity for the purpose of building.  The norms of our society have divided up land into neat little rectangular patches without regard to natural processes. Our values define such norms as being justifiable interest in private property, a value system alien to owls.  So the house could not be built on any of a huge number of vacant lots in the area, not because of objective, scientific reasons, but because of sociological contingencies determined centuries ago.

After all, Mike, it’s more important for a person to have a home than an owl.  OK. That’s hard to deny. But by thinking outside of the box, the parameters of which are the norms (land policies) established through a bureaucratic process, both objects could have been achieved. There was plenty of room, in this case, for owl and man to cohabitate.

So the nest was destroyed, the house built, and now it stands…empty.  It’s been empty for about nine months now.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know what happened to the prospective owner that they did not move in when the house was finished. I do know, that it turns out that there was no pressing need to destroy the owl nest.  Once the mamma owl raised her young she would have moved on her own and the property could have been developed.

It also didn’t take me long (literally a one minute google search) to find an alternative to destroying the owl nest.  If there’s enough room and enough time, which in this case there were both, the owl could be encouraged to move to another burrow a short distance away.  This would ensure the health of the owl, and her offspring, demonstrate respect for the natural world and resulted in the construction of a home.

But no such policy initiative exists and no such incentive can be proposed for those looking to sell property, build a house, get a construction job.  The institutions we’ve established are destructive.  They do not allow for enough flexibility to take care of things that are of no concern to the interests of private property and economic development.  Hence the burrowing owl must compete with an indifferent human species…and lose.

There are alternatives, however. And these alternatives are not so radical that they will leave humans with unfulfilled needs in the interests of preserving a cute little bird.

By following the established policies in this case no-one’s needs were satisfied.  The nest was destroyed (who knows what happened to the owl?), and a house stands empty, one more relic of a ruined economy.  Our species has the most developed cerebral cortex of any species on earth.  We can and should do better than this!

3 thoughts on “A World of Owls and Humans

Add yours

  1. We can’t always make our decisions based on what we would like to see. We have to consider the needs of all involved in the environment, including people. This is how environmentalists turn off outsiders, by placing the wildlife on a pedestal. The conflict I’m writing about is institutional. It’s not that there wasn’t room enough for both people and owls, there was plenty of room as you can tell from the picture. The problem was the norms and values of society that privilege private property and rigid, man-made boundaries that do not have an analogue in nature. I’m not suggesting privileging owls over people. I’m suggesting rethinking the norms that guide our decisions and actions.

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