“Burrowing owls perform all sorts of functions useful to humans, none more so than demonstrating to infertile minds that goblins really do exist.”
-Ted Williams, nature writer*
One cannot help but agree with Ted Williams. With huge, luminescent eyes, bobbing movements, and a freely rotating head, burrowing owls do resemble goblins. Further, these useful critters help humans in all sorts of ways, not least by their tendency to catch and devour pests of many varieties.
And now, new research indicate that burrowing owls are not susceptible to the bubonic plague. Despite living among ground squirrels that have been devastated by the disease (which thrives in squirrels and rodents in the American West), and despite contracting many bites from fleas carrying the disease, owls do not fall prey. As pointed out by the scientists studying these species, that means that every flea that lives with (and sates itself with) the blood of owls isn't infecting ground squirrels-- or humans. Even though this bacterial disease is curable today, humans still die each year without proper treatment. So from our perspective, the more owls out there, the better!
Defeating bubonic plague: add that to the list of useful functions performed by these little feathered goblins.
* Not to be confused with Ted Williams, left fielder for the Red Sox and one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. He had some good quotes, too:
"Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer."
"A man has to have goals — for a day, for a lifetime — and that was mine, to have people say, "There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived."
"If you don't think too good, don't think too much."
His team collected thousands of fleas from burrowing owl nests during banding and health checks. “We camped for many nights amidst street signs that warned of plague, to avoid contact with sick or dead rodents, and to take other precautions for avoiding exposure,” said Belthoff. Nearly all of the 4,750 fleas collected from owls were Pulex irritans, a known plague vector. Good news, though! They found no evidence of the plague bacteria in owl fleas they collected, or in the blood of the owls.