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Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife has been protecting burrowing owls, and other local wildlife, for 20 years

By Staff | Mar 18, 2021

Tom Hayden

They are approximately 9 inches tall and weigh about 7 ounces. They are as much a part of Cape Coral as its 400 miles of canals. The burrowing owls, their homes underground and the distinguishable crosses where they perch, are fixtures in this community.

Caring for these owls and other wildlife in this city is the responsibility of the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, celebrating 20 years of stewardship this year.

Two decades ago, a small group of volunteers saw a need to protect the owls, gopher tortoises, butterflies and other wildlife and help them co-exist with a city, its exploding development and surging population. They knew these owls — on the state’s threatened and endangered species list and protected by various federal, state and city laws — were an integral part of the community’s character.

Finding a way to help these birds — the only species of 171 owls to live underground — survive started early in the city’s development. Vacant lots were being sold by the hundreds, but development wasn’t keeping pace. Grass grew tall, and when lots were mowed, workers couldn’t see the owls, putting them in danger.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the borrows needed to be marked, and a group of community volunteers, led by Carol Keifer, Jackie-O’Donnell and Sue Scott, started doing just that, as well as putting up crosses for the owls to perch. There were probably over 1,000 burrows in the community at the time, so marking all of them was difficult.

But staking the burrows was only part of the battle. The grass grew inside the staked areas, something owls do not like. They like to be able to see and without that ability, the owls would abandon the burrows.

The volunteers, armed with weed whackers, tried to keep up, but their equipment wasn’t always reliable. They knew an organized effort to raise money for better tools was needed. The Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife was formed two decades ago, as was the first burrowing owl festival, said one of the group’s 12 charter members, Bev Saltonstal, who is writing a book about the owls. About 2,000 people attended the festival and the needed funds were raised. Festival attendees complained the honored guest, the owl, wasn’t there. The next year, the group arranged tours to different nests throughout the city. For each year since, the festival has been an annual event. The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented live events the last two years, but a virtual fundraiser this year brought in about $8,000.

Since those early days of finding enough money to afford proper weedwhackers, the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife has persevered and become one of the more significant groups in Southwest Florida. The scope of the group’s work is significant. They educate the public on area wildlife as well as protecting almost 3,000 burrowing owls, hundreds of gopher tortoises, butterflies, manatees and bald eagles. They also monitor purple martin houses.

The group also created the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife Trust in 2017 to purchase vacant properties to help protect the wildlife. In the last four years, approximately 28 lots have been purchased and over 120 gopher tortoises reside on one of the lots. The city also provided $100,000 for utilities.

The group’s educational programs provide a way for residents to have starter burrows. There also is an “Adopt an Owl” fundraiser. For the last three years, Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife has sponsored a “Ground-Owl Day,” modeled after the famous Punxsutawney Phil and the Ground Hog Day. The group’s honorary mascot, Athene, did not see its shadow this year, ensuring 6 more weeks of “Florida” winter.

It is currently nesting season for the owls, so it’s not unusual for the males to bring items like duct tape, dog feces, tube socks, even a toy dog bone, to their nests to lure the females.

The Cape Coral Museum of History will honor the owls and the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife with two events in April. On April 20, there will be a speaker on the owls from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Coral Ridge Funeral Home. On April 24, a Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife 20th anniversary ceremony and museum open house in set for 10 a.m. to noon. The museum is located at 544 Cultural Park Boulevard.

To donate and learn more about CCFW, visit www.ccfriendsofwildlife.org.

Tom Hayden is a Cape Coral Museum of History board member and Cape Coral City Council member, representing District 3. He writes a column twice a month on the city’s history for the Cape Coral Breeze.