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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Burrowing Owls: Really Superb Owls

burrowing owl
To have a little wildlife fun during the Super Bowl, the Service and others tweet using the #Superb_Owl hashtag. This picture stirred up a Social Media storm. Photo Credit: Katie McVey/USFWS


You might have seen this awesome photo that Katie McVey, a wildlife refuge specialist at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah posted on Social Media during the Superb Owl, er Super Bowl. The photo was featured on Good Morning America, The Huffington Post and elsewhere.

We wanted to know a little more about the ridiculously cute burrowing owls she photographed, so we talked with Katie. 

burrowing owl
Burrowing owls are species of concern to conservationists. Photo Credit: Katie McVey/USFWS  

It turns out the photos are a few years old from when Katie was doing graduate research at Boise State University with the Raptor Biology Program. She and other students monitored burrowing owls at the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area near Boise.

Burrowing owls are listed as endangered in Canada, and most U.S. states that have burrowing owls consider them as a species of concern because their numbers are shrinking. Loss or alteration of habitat is a key reason for their troubles. The changing habitat has left some burrowing owls without traditional nesting sites. 

That’s actually why the baby owls at top are in a 5-gallon bucket.

The burrowing owl colony Katie worked with all lived in artificial burrows – 5-gallon buckets connected to the surface by plastic pipe. 

When the researchers needed to band them or count them, Katie says, they blocked off the entrance to the nesting site and dug around the bucket, “Once you dug out the top of the bucket.” She adds, “you lifted the lid and pulled out the owls.” Researchers then placed them in another bucket and covered it with a cloth lid.

Burrowing owls are different from many owls people know. Aside from living in tunnels, when a burrowing owl feels threatened (like the owls pictured at top), they hiss. So while the owls look surprised, they are actually defending themselves.

The hissing sounds like a rattlesnake and deters some predators from looking in the burrow for a meal because who wants to deal with a nest full of rattlesnakes? 

 “The owls in the photo [at top] look like 30 day olds,” almost ready to fly away, and those colorful bands will enable researchers to ID the birds without putting them through the stress of recapture.

burrowing owl
  Still eating. Photo Credit: Katie McVey/USFWS

Finally, burrowing owls really are as cute as the photos make them seem, Katie says, “except when they don't finish a meal. This little guy has the tail of a kangaroo rat still sticking out of his mouth. Yum!” 


-- Matt Trott, External Affairs

Oh my, they are gorgeous! Love their expressions. Someone should make a cartoon about burrowing owls- their features could be exaggerate even more!
Miss Tulip x
<a href="http://www.thethriftymagpiesnest.co.uk/">T... Thrifty Magpies Nest</a>
# Posted By Miss Tulip | 2/11/15 4:39 AM

Every possible effort should be taken to preserve the burrowing owl's natural habitat.
# Posted By Steve Ragan | 2/11/15 11:58 AM

We live on 40 desert acres in south/central Colorado. I have at least 2 families of burrowing owls that return every year to have and raise their babies in old prairie dog holes on our property. I can literally watch owl antics for half the summer, right from my deck. I have counted 10-12 owes at one time!
# Posted By C.D. | 2/12/15 4:44 AM

What is their status in New Mexico? I know a spot where they breed every year and development is beginning around them.
# Posted By Tim Hutton | 2/12/15 9:31 PM

Thank you for your interest in the burrowing owl. Here are two resources that may be of interest to you:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Species Profile for the Western burrowing owl

‚ÄčNote: County-level range in New Mexico has not been defined for the Western burrowing owl.

More information can be obtained from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish - Burrowing Owl Survey Protocol:
# Posted By Fish and Wildlife Service | 2/13/15 7:47 AM

There was/is a conservation project to save burrowing Owls in Central/Eastern Oregon as well; it seems that an over-population of predators (i.e.: Coyotes and others) decimated the native Gopher population, in an Army storage site where they'd installed bunkers. The Owls depend on vacated Gopher tunnels and chambers to occupy, lay their eggs, hatch and nurture their chicks. Fewer Gophers = Fewer Deserted Gopher Holes for the Owls to occupy. So some conservationists have fabricated "artificial" tunnels, with brood chambers (consisting of the same kind of 5 gal., buried bucket with a lid) so the chicks could be uncovered, counted, typed (sex/health) and tagged. The chicks are returned, the lids replaced and the bucket/"broodery" covered over again with dry and sod for next years occupants. (Probably the same mating pair or some of their chicks returning?)
# Posted By D.E. Kaufman | 2/15/15 4:05 AM

You could look for a video by Oregon Field Guide (Oregon PBS) burrowing owls- which is the story of the former army reserve site.
# Posted By Ken | 3/19/20 8:30 PM
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