Rare Owls Return to Abandoned Community Near Los Angeles Airport

A small group of burrowing owls, like this one near the Salton Sea in California in 2007, seem to be thriving near Los Angeles International Airport, despite the noise and the asphalt. Douglas Barnum/U. S. Geological Survey

Los Angeles real estate is always a hot commodity, so it's a good thing that some burrowing owls found a nature preserve to call home, even if it is under some Los Angeles International Airport flight paths.

Scientists have discovered 10 burrowing owls in the LAX Dunes, a nature preserve located at the west end of the airport, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"For wintering owls, this tiny chunk of land has become priceless coastal real estate," biologist and avian expert Pete Bloom told the Times, raising his voice over the deafening roar of aircraft a few hundred feet overhead. "That's because there is no place else left for them to go in the city of Los Angeles."

Comeback story

The LAX Dunes Preserve was formerly a 3-mile long beachfront community called Surfridge. Purchased in 1921, the land became a secluded residence for the likes of Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille and voice actor Mel Blanc. With scenic views and isolated nature, the community thrived until the late 1950s as LAX began to grow.

Between the noise and the pollution, air traffic caused Surfridge to lose much of its charm. In 1961, using eminent domain laws, Los Angeles began to purchase or condemn Surfridge neighborhoods as a "noise abatement" measure. By the mid-1980s, the land had mostly been cleared of human homes and turned over to Los Angeles World Airports, which decided to restore the land to its natural state.

Since then, sand, native and invasive flora and dozens of wildlife species began to return to Surfridge. More than 900 plant and animal species now call the preserve home, according to Friends of the LAX Dunes, a coalitions of interests dedicated to preserving the dunes. This includes the critically endangered El Segundo blue butterfly.

And, apparently, a small group of owls.

A burrowing owl stands near in its den in the LAX Dunes
A burrowing owl stands near in its den in the LAX Dunes. U.S. Geological Survey

Scientists have found 10 burrowing owls in the preserve, including a breeding pair standing guard over a nest. The protective duo reportedly hissed if scientists got too close. These are the most owls that have been seen on the land in 40 years.

"This is very exciting — a real stunner," Bloom said.

The owls' reappearance in the preserve, which is closed to the public, is a sign that conservation efforts are working. Scientists hope that the younger burrowing owls will become permanent residents of the dunes, especially since, according to Bloom, the nearest burrowing owl is a single bird living 27 miles away at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach in Orange County.

Burrowing owls were among the most common birds in California, but their numbers have dropped steadily since the 1940s due to land development, pesticides, the decline in rodent populations and other causes.

"With almost no place left for migratory burrowing owls to rest and bulk up in the winter months," Bloom said, "the dunes have become critical to the survival of the species."