New endowment will support burrowing owl research

Sep 23, 2016 John Stumbos
Catherine Portman establishes fund that will be open to any University of California student
New endowment will support burrowing owl research

Catherine Portman (right) created an endowment to fund student research into burrowing owls. With her is Patrick Nolan, a development officer with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. John Stumbos/UC Davis

Yolo County resident Catherine Portman has donated $50,000 to establish an endowment that will fund student research on burrowing owls.

Portman first became an advocate for burrowing owls 16 years ago when a nearby housing development destroyed habitat for the diminutive raptors. She then rallied like-minded individuals to create the Burrowing Owl Preservation Society to educate the public and support conservation efforts.

“This has been a dream of mine for many years,” Portman said. “Burrowing owls have a lot of charisma but no money. Now, burrowing owls will have their own research money.”

The Catherine Portman Burrowing Owl Research Award will be administered by the UC Davis Department of Animal Science and is open to any undergraduate or graduate student at any University of California campus. Students must submit a research proposal. The department’s scholarship selection committee will choose award recipients based on the anticipated impact of the proposed research.

“It is my hope that by making money available to students, more of them will fall in love with burrowing owls and dedicate their careers to our sweet little owls,” Portman said. “We definitely need more qualified burrowing owl biologists.”

Department of Animal Science adjunct professor Joshua Hull studies raptors and welcomed news about the endowment. "UC Davis has a history of student involvement in raptor rehabilitation and research,” he said. “The Catherine Portman Burrowing Owl Research Award will build on that history, providing students with an opportunity to study California's burrowing owls and engage in owl conservation."

Athene_cunicularia_hypugea.jpg
Western Burrowing Owl Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike other species in the owl family, burrowing owls live and breed in the ground in holes dug by ground squirrels and other rodents. Burrowing owl populations have been in decline because of habitat loss, degradation and modification, and eradication of ground squirrels, according to a 2012 report by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A 2014 survey of burrowing owls in Yolo County by the Burrowing Owl Preservation Society found only 15 breeding pairs, compared to 63 pairs in a similar survey seven years earlier. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates the population of western burrowing owls has declined by more than 60 percent. In 2003, the center and others petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to have California’s burrowing owls protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The petition showed that breeding owls were eliminated from almost one-quarter of their former range in California, continue to decline in an additional quarter of their range, and are extremely sparsely distributed over an additional 43 percent of their range.

More donations to the endowment from those who would like to support burrowing owl research are encouraged because, as Portman noted, greater principal in the account means more support will be available to students. If you would like to contribute to the Catherine Portman Burrowing Owl Research Award, please contact College Advancement in the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences: [email protected], 530-752-1639.

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