As the Utilities Expansion Project continues in the Southwest 6 and 7 areas, the city will be collapsing inactive burrowing owl nest burrows that are close to the construction work, as allowed by the state.
Last year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued a permit to the city that allows the Cape to destroy inactive burrows - nests containing no eggs or flightless juvenile owls - located within 10 feet of the utilities project. The permit is scheduled to expire in December 2016.
Active burrows - nests occupied by owls sitting on or attending to eggs or nests occupied by owl chicks that cannot fly yet - are not covered by the permit and cannot be collapsed or touched.
"The city of Cape Coral cares about the burrowing owls," city spokeswoman Connie Barron said Tuesday, pointing out that the burrowing owl is the official bird of Cape Coral. "We want to look out for the birds just as much as the homeowners do, as much as the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife."
During the nearly two-year project, contractors will trench the streets for the utilities lines, as well as work in the right-of-way areas. The completion date for Southwest 6 and 7 is April or May 2015.
"There's a lot of construction, a lot of pipes going in the ground," she said.
A survey in early 2013 identified nearly 100 burrowing owl burrows within the vicinity of the two areas, of which 31 were found within 10 feet of the project limits. To apply for a permit to remove the abutting nests, the city had to outline for the FWC a plan to protect the species during construction.
Burrows will be assessed by a project biologist, who will use an underground camera to determine if eggs or flightless young are present. Inactive burrows are immediately collapsed by the biologist.
"That's done right then and there," Barron said, noting that it prevents nesting after the assessment.
Active burrows will be marked and will remain untouched until they are found to be inactive.
"We'll change our construction pattern so that we are less likely to impact that nest," she said. "The contractors will steer a clear path around an active nest."
To assess a burrow, any present owls may be "gently flushed away using non-injurious methods."
"They'll use gentle methods to urge the birds to move away from the away," Barron said.
As of Tuesday, the city had destroyed 13 inactive burrows for the project. With nesting season having kicked off Saturday, officials expect to report on fewer collapsed burrows in the coming months.
"It will be less likely that we take a nest, unless we're there and we know for sure that there is no nesting activity going on," she said.
Nesting season for the burrowing owls runs until July 10.
Angela Williams, a protected species permit coordinator for the FWC, explained that the city applied for a permit to destroy up to 60 burrows over three years in order to complete the utilities project.
"We didn't cap the number at 60," she said. "We focused on the fact that they would be removing inactive nests only over a three-year time frame - 10 feet or so within the active construction area."
The work will also be done in stages, so all of the burrows will not be collapsed at once.
"That will allow the animals to move off into other areas," Williams said.
She noted that the work the city is doing and what the permit covers is nothing unusual.
"I think it's a very typical application," Williams said.
Once the utilities work is complete, the city anticipates working with the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife and homeowners in Southwest 6 and 7 to create "starter burrows" as replacements.
"Burrowing owls are very resilient," Barron said. "They can take to another nest very quickly."
Gary Morse, spokesman for the FWC's Southwest Regional Office, explained that burrows are used to raise the young chicks, so destroying inactive burrows generally has little impact on the species.
"The owls will generally relocate," he said. "They burrow another nest."
Morse added that the Cape was not a nesting habitat for the species until it was developed.
"The problem with Cape Coral you have is the more development you have, the less habitat you have for the owls," he said.
Molesting, harassing or injuring burrowing owls or their burrows is a crime. To report a violation, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's hotline at (888) 404-3922.