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Whooo Turns a Chemical Weapons Depot into an Owl Sanctuary?

By Mara Lafontaine · July 24, 2023

In brief…

  • Wildlife conservationist, David Johnson has been working for over a decade to protect and study the Burrowing Owl.
  • Interestingly, Johnson's project operates from a decommissioned chemical weapons depot
  • Unlike most owls, Burrowing Owls live underground in burrows often left by other creatures.
  • Johnson's Global Owl Project has conducted an extensive study on cultural perceptions of owls, across 28 countries.
  • Despite battling cancer, Johnson vows: "I'm going to work with owls until my last breath."
Owls have long fascinated people with their aura of wisdom and mystery  travelwayoflife, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Wildlife conservationist David Johnson has been working for over a decade to protect and study the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). “There are two important days in your life: The day you’re born, and the day you find out why. I know why. I’m here to help owls,” Johnson told CBS News.

Unlike most owl species that nest in trees, Burrowing Owls live underground in holes left behind by other creatures like prairie dogs or even humans. In 2008, recognizing the lack of suitable habitats for these ground-nesting birds, Johnson began producing artificial burrows to provide the birds with homes.

Interestingly, the headquarters of Johnson’s organization, Global Owl Project, turns out to be a sprawling decommissioned chemical weapons depot near Hermiston, Oregon that once housed 12 percent of America’s chemical weapons, including mustard and sarin gas.

Johnson’s initiative has not only helped increase the owl population but also gave Johnson the ability to study them closely. He bands them, records their vocalizations, and tracks their migrations using small locator devices.

Johnson’s work extends beyond just studying the alluring birds. For the past decade The Owl Project has been exploring how cultures around the world view owls, and has conducted some 6,000 interviews in 28 countries to explore the many and varied beliefs about owls while gathering examples of owl imagery.

The first-known depiction of an owl, discovered in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in France, dates back 30,000 years. From ancient mythology to modern pop culture, owls have fascinated people with their aura of wisdom and mystery. Ancient Greece included the ‘Athenian Owl’ on silver coins, while mystical depictions of owls are featured in the Harry Potter films and TV’s Twin Peaks.

“Owls are mysterious. When you see an owl, you realize that owl has been watching you for quite a while already,” Johnson observed. “Humans have a great imagination. And we project on owls in all kinds of different ways. You know, someone’s going to get sick or die, or they have wisdom.” While it’s clear that Johnson deeply loves and respects the birds, he quips, “They’re just owls.”

Despite battling stage-four colon cancer, Johnson continues to work and advocate for owls. ”I wish I could do as much as I could for everything on Earth,” he said. “I can’t. What I can do is I can help owls. I’m going to work with owls until my last breath.”