Burrowing owls are small, unusual owls that nest in underground burrows instead of trees. They live in wide-open, sparsely vegetated areas like prairies, deserts, grasslands and agricultural fields. Rapidly urbanizing areas lead these versatile birds to nest in whatever open areas they can find, including vacant lots, road medians and airports. They are often associated with prairie dog towns and other burrowing animals because they use their burrows for nests. They spend most of their time low to the ground, walking, running, flying low or perched on mounds, bushes and fenceposts.
These birds have a very wide range that extends to the tip of South America and up into Canada and includes many subspecies. Birds in South America, northern Mexico, Florida, the Caribbean and the southwest United States are permanent residents, while northern birds will migrate south into Mexico and Central America during the winter months after the breeding season. Little is known about their migration routes.
Burrowing owls are still numerous, but their populations have been declining for many years, owing primarily to habitat loss. Declines have been particularly sharp in Florida, the Dakotas and coastal California. This species is listed as endangered in Canada, and a species with special protection in Mexico. In the United States it is listed as endangered in Minnesota, threatened in Colorado and Florida and as a species of concern in California, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. It is considered vulnerable or imperiled in almost all states in its range. Burrowing owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be a bird of conservation need.
Threats to burrowing owl habitat include, agriculture, construction and development activities, as well as the eradication of prairie dog colonies and other burrowing mammals. Unfortunately in some places, these owls get evicted from their homes in favor of development. Fragmentation and isolation from habitat loss may create additional threats to burrowing owls in breeding areas as unpaired owls may not be able to find mates in small and localized populations. Pesticides, collisions with vehicles, feral animals, electrified fences, collisions with wind turbines and shooting are also sources of mortalities for these birds. Climate change leading to increased fires, spring heat waves, drought, as well as flooding, may also impact burrowing owl populations.
Elimination of burrowing mammals through pest control programs has been identified as the primary factor responsible for the declines of burrowing owls. Restoring prairie dog colonies and habitat for other burrowing mammals is one way wildlife agencies are working to conserve these birds. This species has benefited from protective legislation, reintroduction and habitat protection programs and artificial nest burrows. Protecting suitable habitats in desert, grassland and shrub-steppe environments are an important part of burrowing owl conservation. Because they do not require large uninterrupted stretches of habitat, these owls can benefit from the protection of relatively small patches of suitable land. Other conservation measures include monitoring their migration patterns, and populations trends to better understand threats they face during migration and in their wintering grounds.
Burrowing owls are small with long legs and short tails. Their heads rounded and they lack ear tufts. Unlike most owls, where the female is larger than the male, both sexes of the burrowing owl are the same size. Their wings are relatively long and rounded and the tail is short. They are slightly smaller than a western screech owl, about the same length and height as an American robin, but much bulkier.
Height: 7.5 to 9.8 in (19 to 25 cm)
Wingspan: 20 to 24 in (51 to 61 cm)
Burrowing owls weigh about 6 oz (170 g).
Burrowing owls are not especially vocal, though they are capable of producing a variety of cooing, warbling, rasping, clucking, screaming and rattling sounds. The most common call is a quail-like, two-note cooing made by males during mating and territorial defense. Young owls will utter eep calls, as well as rasping sounds, which may scare away predators by mimicking a rattlesnake’s warning.
Adult burrowing owls are sandy-colored birds with mottled brown and white spots on their back feathers. Their undersides including the wings and breast are pale with sandy brown spots, grading to dark brown bars on the belly and the undertail is white. They have a bold white throat and eyebrows, intense yellow eyes, and a tan colored beak. Juveniles look similar to adults but unstreaked or less mottled, with buffy-yellow underparts and wing patch. The body color pattern helps them blend in with the vegetation in their habitat and avoid predation. Birds in Florida and the Caribbean tend to have whiter spots than western burrowing owls.
Burrowing owl chicks hatch from an egg after a 28 to 30 day incubation period. Newly hatched chicks are helpless, covered in grayish white down, with their eyes closed. The mother stays in the burrow with her chicks, feeding them with prey caught by the males. After two weeks, young burrowing owls are able to stand and walk around. They are seen roosting at the entrance to their burrow, waiting for their parents to return with food. Juveniles begin learning to fly after four weeks, but are not capable of strong flight until they are about 6 weeks old, when they leave the nest. They start chasing live insects after seven or eight weeks, but they remain with their parents until they are able to sustain themselves at about 12 weeks old. Burrowing owls become sexually mature after one year, and typically live six to eight years in the wild.
The average lifespan of a burrowing owl is six to eight years, with the oldest known being at least 9 years, 11 months old when it was sighted in California in 2014.
Burrowing owls build nests in underground burrows, typically excavated by other burrowing animals such as prairie dogs, ground squirrels and tortoises, but some owls especially in Florida and the Caribbean excavate their own burrows. These owls enlarge and maintain burrows by digging with their beaks and kicking soil with their feet.
Courting males display by circling overhead or flying dozens of feet into the air, hovering for a few seconds and then rapidly descending. On the ground near nest burrow, males feed females and members of a pair nibble at each other's bills and preen each other's feathers. Courtship displays also include flashing white markings, cooing, scratching, and bowing.
Females will lay a clutch of 2 to 12 smooth white eggs about one inch (3 cm) in diameter over the course of a week, laying one egg per day. Clutch sizes may vary by region. Females incubate the eggs for 28 to 30 days while the male brings the female food and stands guard from a nearby perch. After the eggs hatch, the female remains with the young for the first one to two weeks before she begins hunting again. Juveniles are ready to walk around outside the burrow at two weeks but will not leave the nest for about six weeks. The nesting period lasts 44 to 53 days, and females produce one brood per year, sometimes two in Florida. Breeding season runs from February to August depending on the region.
Although there are several similar looking species of owls such as the short-eared owl, northern pygmy owl, northern saw-whet owl, it would be difficult to confuse any of these species with the burrowing owl because they are unique with their long legs, preference for walking along the ground and digging and living in burrows.
Burrowing owls live in flat open habitat with sparse vegetation, short grass, and bare soil such as prairies, grasslands, desert andsteppe environments. They live in burrows they dig themselves or take over from prairie dogs, ground squirrels and even tortoises, so they are often associated with these burrowing animals. Prairie dog towns, which were ideal burrowing owl habitat, were once common throughout the west; these are now scare and the owls have adapted to live urban and agricultural areas. Some examples are golf courses, pastures, airport medians, road embankments, cemeteries, vacant lots and any open areas they can find.
Land on which the natural dominant plant forms are grasses and forbs.
Arid land with usually sparse vegetation.
Of or relating to cities and the people who live in them.
Environments influenced by humans in a less substantial way than cities. This can include agriculture, silvaculture, aquaculture, etc.
Burrowing owls are opportunistic predators. While insects and small mammals make up the majority of their food items, they will eat anything they can physically handle. Their diet varies given the season and location. In summer, in many areas burrowing owls commonly hunt grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, moths, caterpillars, dragonflies, water bugs, earwigs, scorpions, centipedes and other arthropods. For much of the year, they may feed on small mammals like voles, mice, ground squirrels and shrews. They also feed on a variety of other food sources including amphibians, snakes, lizards, turtles, bats, young rabbits, small birds, ducklings and even young burrowing owls. Females catch more insects, mostly during the day, while males take most of the vertebrates, mostly at night. When food is plentiful, burrowing owls often stow extra food to ensure they have an adequate supply during incubation and brooding periods. Like other owls, they regurgitate pellets of indigestible parts of their prey such as bones and fur.
Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are active during the daytime, or diurnal, rather than at night, or nocturnal, during breeding season. During the non-breeding season, they become more nocturnal. Burrowing owls spend most of their time on the ground or on low perches like fence posts. They usually hunt close to the ground using a variety of methods, including swooping down from a perch, hovering over fields or walking and running along ground, then clutching prey in its talons.
When they're not hunting for food, these owls sleep on dirt mounds at their burrow entrances or on depressions in the ground. In the absence of suitable homes that were created by prairie dogs and other burrowing animals, burrowing owls have been known to nest in piles of PVC pipes and other lairs that were unintentionally provided by humans. Because of the adaptability of this species, conservationists can sometimes supply artificial burrows made of buckets, pipes, tubing and other human-made materials. The birds may also collect bottle caps, metal foil, cigarette butts, paper scraps and other bits of trash at the burrow entrance, possibly signifying that the burrow is occupied. Before laying eggs, they will carpet the entrances to their homes with animal dung, which attracts dung beetles and other insects that the owls can feed on right outside their door.
Males defend their territories against other males by vocalizing and displaying in a weaving crouch with feathers fluffed. Males also chase and attack with outstretched talons. When alarmed, burrowing owls bob jerkily up and down. Breeding pairs will vocalize, rub bills and preen, with the male calling and presenting food to the female. Juveniles can stand upright and walk at about two weeks of age. They typically stay near the burrow, either play-hunting by jumping on each other or on prey that is brought by their parents. Sometimes juveniles join their parents to forage at dusk. When the young are 3 to 4 weeks old, burrowing owl families often switch burrows to satellite, or non-nesting burrows every 10 to 15 days. This is likely to avoid predation or nest parasites. Breeding pairs exhibit site fidelity, meaning they return to the same breeding areas and sometimes even the same nest burrows every year.