City officials revealed this week that a pair of the city's rare burrowing owls were found dead in their burrow on the Shoreline Golf Links golf course in March, apparently killed by a plastic sand bottle from a golf cart.
City wildlife biologist Phil Higgins said the pair was found trapped in their burrow -- the bottle shoved into its opening -- on Monday, March 17. The ground-dwelling birds suffered from "dehydration and environmental stress."
Both owls appeared dead until one began moving and was quickly rushed off to a wildlife rescue center. It eventually had to be euthanized "due to the severity of its injuries," Higgins said in an email. That particular owl had also suffered from a significant physical blow of some sort, as a "degloving injury" is also noted as a cause of its death, Higgins said.
Found stuck into their burrow was a seed and sand bottle supplied to golfers to help repair divots in the turf caused by golf club swings.
While there are records that may show who used the course over the weekend after the owls were last seen alive on March 14, Higgins said he was not aware of any suspects in the case.
"We are so puzzled, as nothing like this has ever happened in the past," Higgins added.
"We are aware of the incident and the Department of Fish and Wildlife's law enforcement division is investigating the incident," said Andrew Hughan, public information officer for the state agency. "We can't really say any more than that while it is under investigation."
Another pair of owls on the course are now being monitored by a security camera, Higgins said. And flyers have since been put up at the golf course's pro shop to let golfers know that the owls are "a protected species and that no disturbance of the owls or their burrows is permitted."
New golf course employees have also received training to help protect the owls.
Reflecting a regional trend, Higgins said the number of owls in Shoreline Park is declining, despite an extensive city program to monitor and preserve their habitat. There are now only two mating pairs and six chicks, compared to 22 chicks in 2003 and half that number in 2011.
"We have been monitoring their population for the past 16 years and nothing like this has ever happened," Higgins said. "We have increased our surveillance of the burrowing owls, both myself and the rangers make daily visits to ensure that all burrowing owl burrows are not impacted in any way."