Be Your Own Birder

Weekly Bird: Burrowing Owl

This week’s featured bird is everything you wouldn’t expect from an owl – the burrowing owl is one unique bird! How much do you really know about these owls?

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl – Photo by Andy Witchger

Burrowing Owl Fun Facts
  • The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) is part of the Strigidae family of owls, the “true owls” that are distinct from barn owls. Other fun names for burrowing owls include howdy owls, billy owls, ground owls, long-legged owls, prairie dog owls, and prairie owls.
  • Unlike most owls that are nocturnal, burrowing owls are very active during the day as well, hunting and perching outside their burrows even in mid-afternoon.
  • While these owls can excavate their own burrows, they are more likely to take over burrows from other animals, including tortoises, gophers, prairie dogs, armadillos, skunks, and ground squirrels. They will even nest in open pipes and easily adapt to artificial burrows.
  • Like all owls, burrowing owls are carnivores. They eat mostly insects and rodents, with the occasional snake or lizard on the menu. They will store extra prey in a special pantry section of their burrow to save it for the nesting season or when food may be scarce. Termites, scorpions, beetles, toads, crickets, and other prey is all part of their diet.
  • These owls are widespread in western North America and into South America, but there is also a population in Florida, Cuba, and parts of the eastern Caribbean. These vastly geographically separated populations may one day be split into separate species.
  • There are more than 20 distinct subspecies of burrowing owl, but only two are found in North America – the western subspecies (A. c. hypugaea) and the Florida subspecies (A. c. floridana).
  • The sandy brown and buff-colored plumage of these owls is excellent camouflage for their preferred desert, sandy, scrub, and rocky habitats.
  • Unlike many raptors that are solitary and isolated, burrowing owls are loosely colonial and it is not unusual to have several occupied burrows in the same area, even with multiple active nests.
  • Burrowing owls may protect their burrows by mimicking the rattling, hissing sounds of rattlesnakes to scare off intruders. They have a very large vocabulary with more distinct sounds than any other owl in the world, with more than 15 different sounds and calls.
  • In 2010, a burrowing owl mistakenly tried to investigate burrows on the Oasis of the Seas cruise ship, where the miniature golf course was very similar to the bird’s natural golf course habitat (many Florida burrowing owls thrive on golf courses). Wildlife officials successfully relocated the bird back to a more suitable spot in Miami.
Adding the Burrowing Owl to Your Life List

Because burrowing owls are active during the day, they’re one of the easiest owls to see. Visiting an area that is dense with burrows will be the most effective way to add the burrowing owl to your life list, and in areas where they nest close to humans, burrowing owls can be quite acclimated to human activity and are very approachable (but keep your distance to protect the owls!). They are most active in the twilight hours of early morning and late evening, but can be active all day as well, especially in late summer and early fall when juvenile owls are exploring around their burrows and learning to hunt. Look for unusual lumps and bumps on rocky ground, and check for the owls’ bright yellow eyes watching right back at you.

Learn More About the Burrowing Owl

There’s always more to learn about burrowing owls, and you can start here…

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl – Photo by Rama

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