Beers and burrowing owls may seem like an odd match, but not when it comes to Wren House Brewing Company’s recently released U-9 lager made in collaboration with Audubon Southwest, Wild at Heart Raptor Rescue and Sinagua Malt.
This crisp lager is named after, U-9, a local burrowing owl who is well known for exhibiting a profound amount of bravado. Not only was U-9 captured and released successfully on three occasions, but his attitude and burrow-decorating skills were particularly impressive. He stands out as a hallmark to researchers who’ve been observing the species for decades.
Besides the U-9 lager recognizing one of Arizona’s notorious wildlife characters, the intent of the beer is to bring awareness to the burrowing owl’s habitat loss and the need for volunteers at Audubon and Wild at Heart’s urban owl relocation program called Downtown Owls.
The Audubon was already connected to the brewing industry through the Western Rivers Brewers’ Council, which is a coalition of conservation-minded breweries that support protecting rivers across the Colorado River Basin through advocacy and outreach. Having already successfully released collaborative brews, Audubon knew this would be the perfect way to bring awareness to the plight of the burrowing owl.
Steven Prager is an outreach biologist with Audubon Southwest who helped bring the U-9 lager to fruition.
“We started thinking about how we could stand on that concept of using beer to connect with conservation topics,” Prager says.
“Breweries have a lot to offer. It is a different voice for the same goals.”
He explains Audubon wanted to share action opportunities for Downtown Owls with the diverse craft beer community.
Besides the obvious connection of birds, Audubon reached out to Phoenix’s Wren House because it is tied to the community and its can art “really tells a great story.” The beer is available through brewery’s website.
“People who are getting locally crafted beer are doing it for a reason, and they are the right target for wanting to take action,” he says, explaining how craft beer is a way for the Audubon to reach a new, diverse community.
Prager says you can’t talk about conservation topics without discussing water, and it’s also why the U-9 lager is made with 100% Arizona-grown grain from Sinagua Malt in Verde Valley. They conserve water by working with farmers to switch to less water-intensive agriculture like malting barley that is used for beer.
“Beer is a great way to tell a compelling story,” he says.
Compelling is exactly why Greg Clark immediately thought of U-9 when he first caught wind of the collaboration brew. Clark has been the burrowing owl habitat coordinator for Wild at Heart Raptors in Cave Creek since 2001 and is an integral part of Arizona’s success in relocating burrowing owls.
He invited the brewers at Wren House to come see U-9 while they were brainstorming about the collaboration back in March. They were smitten with the charismatic, small owl, and that is when U-9 lager was officially born.
“Talk about punching above your weight,” Clark says when explaining why U-9 is so special. “This bird really has attitude.”
Clark explains that male burrowing owls demonstrate dominance by decorating their burrows, which is usually with natural things found in the desert. The owls try to claim the same burrow each mating season. Despite having to be rescued and released on multiple occasions due to injury, U-9 always returned to lavishly decorate the same burrow.
“He decorates the burrows with colorful, manmade objects, like ornamental colored corn cobs, and no one knows where he got it. I’ve never seen an owl do that, ever,” Clark says.
Although the owls live in underground dens, they are not capable of digging their own. They take over deserted burrows of other animals, like coyotes, skunks and squirrels, which is why they are disproportionately affected by development and construction. It not only displaces them, but it also diminishes the desert habitat, pushing out other species it depends on for burrows.
Downtown Owls’ artificial habitats are made in safe areas, typically near agricultural land or designated open space to provide hunting grounds for the owls.
When the climate is right and the habitats are built, the rescued owls are banded then taken to the manmade burrows. Tents are placed over the habitats containing the owls, and volunteers feed them daily for four weeks.
“This bridges the gap until they are self-sufficient,” he says.
The tents let the owls see outside to acclimate and create a new territory. Volunteers observe the owls for about five weeks after the tents are removed.
“We almost never have anyone that signs up to volunteer and cancels. People love to do the feeding and enjoy the entire experience,” Clark says. “It is very hard to find a volunteer, but once we do, they are in it for life.”
Wild at Heart has about 300 burrowing owls waiting to be relocated. Although there is a real need for Downtown Owls volunteers, Clark says they also desperately need more land because they are running out of places to build artificial habitats.
“I need farmers or people with land that we can relocate owls to or that have land next to agriculture or parks,” he says, emphasizing how costly it is to feed the owls in captivity.
To date, the Downtown Owls Project has saved over 500 owls and engaged over 3,000 volunteers, according to Cathy Wise, the community science manager for Downtown Owls.
She says it is much harder to recruit volunteers to the newest habitat location, Powers Butte, which is near Gila Bend, compared to their other urban locations. She considers the U-9 lager a success because it’s already recruited a new volunteer.
“In the summer, Audubon Southwest plans on releasing another collaboration brew that will highlight U-9’s mate, and it will have a brighter label that tells the story of hope and perseverance,” Wise says.
To volunteer or help burrowing owls, visit bit.ly/36AaRtW. Those with land that can be used for habitat, contact Greg Clark at 480.688.0118.