With an untrained eye, it's easy to miss the western burrowing owl.
If the northwest dwellers suffer another low reproduction year, the owls could doubly be missed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.
Owl chick numbers dropped and reproduction was delayed this summer, and the wildlife service suspects that a food drought was to blame.
A mating western burrowing owl couple typically produce three or four chicks per season, said Christiana Manville, wildlife service biologist.
"This year, it's like one," she said. "It's a really weird year."
Only half of the 12 artificial burrows monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Nevada office, 4701 N. Torrey Pines Drive, have chicks .
The small, camouflaged birds nest and roost in burrows and search for food during the day. They feast on insects and small rodents.
A food supply near the Gilcrease Orchard and Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs attracts several burrowing owls, and the largest known population of the birds migrates to Centennial Hills annually, Manville said.
Owl chicks roost with their parents as a parliament of owls for about a month, she added.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Nevada office coordinates monitoring the Centennial Hills burrows with 12 volunteers, who visit the burrows weekly. The program, in conjunction with the Red Rock Audubon Society, has been keeping track of the elusive owls for two years.
Centennial Hills resident Kristen Mueller was drawn to volunteering when she found herself meticulously documenting a hummingbird nest in her backyard, she said.
She reached out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when the hummingbird babies left.
"I got empty nest syndrome," she said.
Mueller tracks the habits of a parliament of four western burrowing owls penned in a corner of the Gilcrease Orchard. She visits for 30 minutes weekly and thrice a week during breeding season.
"I could watch it all day," she said.
Two babies were born this year in the artificial burrow to which Mueller was assigned.
"I've seen sibling rivalry, pouncing on food," she said. "Dad seems very regal. Mom seems very busy."
She watched the younger owls flap and flop while they learned to fly. The pair were expected to leave permanently this month.
In late spring, Manville and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noticed that several of the owls weren't producing many eggs. The successful ones hatched about 15 to 30 days late, Manville said.
The service is slated to compile data from this year and investigate the low-birth year. Manville speculated that it was a down hunting year for the foraging adult burrowing owls, she said.
Although not endangered, the western burrowing owl is considered a "bird of conservation concern" by the service.
The service has been able to keep record of the owls and relocate those whose homes were jeopardized by development. In addition to monitoring trends, volunteers help keep the service privy to construction that could harm the in-ground homes of the birds, Manville said.
"I don't think anyone wants to hurt the owls," she said. "They're just so hidden."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supplies a brochure to developers about the western burrowing owl.
The service also hosts viewings and tours of the Centennial Hills burrows upon request.
For more information on the burrows or to volunteer to help, visit fws.gov/nevada .
Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter Maggie Lillis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 477-3839.