Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) are so named because they live underground in burrows that have been dug out by small mammals like ground squirrels and prairie dogs. They are covered in brown spotted feathers and have long legs. They also sport distinctive white “eyebrows” above bright yellow eyes. They are one of the smallest owls in North America.
Height: About 10 inches.
Weight: Average is about 6 ounces.
Unlike most owls in which the female is larger than the male, the sexes of the burrowing owl are the same size.
Burrowing owls eat small mammals such as moles and mice during late spring and early summer. Later they switch to insects, especially grasshoppers and beetles. Burrowing owls are also known to eat birds, amphibians and reptiles.
Current burrowing owl population estimates are not well known but trend data suggests significant declines across their range. Most recent official estimates place them at less than 10,000 breeding pairs.
Burrowing owls are distributed from the Mississippi to the Pacific and from the Canadian prairie provinces into South America. They are also found in Florida and the Caribbean islands. Burrowing owls have disappeared from much of their historic range.
Unlike other owls, burrowing owls are active during the day, especially in the spring when they gather food for their large broods. This species of owl prefers open areas with low ground cover. They can often be found perching near their burrow on fence posts and trees.
Burrowing owls make a tremulous chuckling or chattering call. They also bob their heads to express excitement or distress.
Burrowing owls often nest in loose colonies about 100 yards apart.
During the nesting season, burrowing owls will collect a wide variety of materials to line their nest, some of which are left around the entrance to the burrow. The most common material is mammal dung, usually from cattle. At one time it was incorrectly thought that the dung helped to mask the scent of the juvenile owls, but researchers now believe the dung helps to control the microclimate inside the burrow and to attract insects, which the owls may eat.
Reproduction Mating Season: Early spring.
Gestation: 28 days.
Clutch size: 3-12 eggs.
The young owls begin appearing at the burrow’s entrance two weeks after hatching and leave the nest to hunt for insects on their own after about 45 days. The chicks can fly well at 6 weeks old.
The greatest threat to burrowing owls is habitat destruction and degradation caused primarily by land development. Despite their protected status, burrowing owls and their burrows are routinely destroyed during the development process.
Burrowing owls are also threatened by agricultural development, the use of pesticides and efforts to eradicate prairie dogs, which live side by side with burrowing owls. This is in addition to natural predation by horned owls, hawks, foxes, badgers and even domestic pets.
Droughts associated with climate change could pose additional problems for burrowing owls through reduced nest success and greater fire frequency. Meanwhile, declining forage values and crop yields could expand the land used for agriculture purposes, putting pressure on what little native prairie habitat is left for the burrowing owl.
Because of the significant declines of burrowing owls in the state of California, in April 2003, Defenders and others conservation groups petitioned the state of California to list the owl under the state’s Endangered Species Act
- The burrowing owl is endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico, and a species of special concern in Florida and most of the western USA. It is a state-endangered species in Colorado.
- Burrowing owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
- CITES: Burrowing owls are listed in Appendix II.