- Common Name:
- Burrowing owls
- Scientific Name:
- Athene cunicularia
- Average Life Span:
- Six to eight years
- Nine inches
- Four to seven ounces
- IUCN Red List Status:
- Least concern
What is a burrowing owl?
As their name suggests, burrowing owls live and nest underground, rather than in trees like most other owls. These birds, native to the Americas, can dig their own burrows, but are more likely to use those abandoned by other animals, such as prairie dogs, armadillos, and tortoises. Weigh less than seven ounces, burrowing owls are 23 times lighter than the world’s largest owl, the 10-pound Blakiston’s fish owl.
Burrowing owls do resemble their kin in appearance, with large, yellow eyes; sharp, hooked beaks; long legs; brown bodies flecked and barred with white; and one long white eyebrow, which gives them a stern expression. Their earthy coloring helps them blend into their varied habitats, such as grasslands, prairies, and deserts.
There are 22 subspecies of burrowing owl, ranging throughout the western U.S., southern Canada, Florida and the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
Burrowing owls eat mostly insects and arthropods, such as scorpions and centipedes, but they’ll also prey on amphibians, rodents, reptiles, and even other birds. Also unlike other owls, they’re not nocturnal, hunting or hanging around outside their burrows during the day. As ground-dwellers, they have numerous predators, including foxes, badgers, and other owls.
Males woo females by performing courtship flights, in which the males fly straight up into the air, hover, and then descend. A courting male will also bow, preen, flash white markings, and coo, as well as bring food to a potential mate. Once paired up, owls are typically monogamous and will live in loose colonies of breeding birds.
Mating pairs stay close to their nesting burrows, where the female incubates a clutch of between two to 12 eggs while the male guards the entrance and fetches food. After incubating about 29 days, the young are born blind, helpless, and pink, covered in white down.
Mom stays in or around the nest and dad continues to stand guard until the chicks fledge, at about six weeks old. Young owls practice hunting by pouncing on bugs, sticks, and food their parents bring back to the burrow.
They’ll also practice flying by “helicoptering,” a hovering move that adult birds use during hunting.
Though burrowing owls are considered a species of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, their population is decreasing overall.
Between 1966 and 2013, the species declined by 33 percent in North America due to threats such as human development—particularly new housing and commercial buildings—which has wiped out many existing burrows. Burrowing owls are also at risk of being hit by cars when they fly low near the ground, searching for prey.
In the western U.S., programs to eliminate prairie dogs have destroyed many of their burrows as well as potential owl habitat.
For these reasons, the birds are considered endangered in Canada; a species of concern in Mexico; and threatened in some U.S. states, such as Florida. (Read why birds matter, and are worth protecting.)
To boost the population of the western burrowing owl, a subspecies native to Washington State, some scientists have installed artificial burrows using corrugated drainpipes, which lead to a nest chamber within a 55-gallon barrel. Some of these burrows also have “anti-predator patios,” a smaller passageway at the entrance to the tunnel that allows burrowing owls—but not larger mammals or birds—to enter.
DID YOU KNOW
Dung beetles are a favorite treat of burrowing owls. To attract the insects, owls decorate the area around their burrow with mammal feces.
Burrowing owls hiss to emulate the rattle of a rattlesnake, a strategy to deter predators.
Cowboys used to call burrowing owls “howdy birds” because of the way they nod their heads, as if in greeting.