What is a Burrowing Owl?

Carol Kindle
Carol Kindle
Burrowing owls often take over abandoned prairie dog tunnels.
Burrowing owls often take over abandoned prairie dog tunnels.

The burrowing owl (Athene canicularia) is one of the smaller of the owl species and is known for nesting in underground burrows. Ranging in length from 9 to 11 inches (23 to 28 cm), the burrowing owl is small enough to take over habitats once used by rodents. These habitats are underground tunnels hollowed out by squirrels, gophers, or prairie dogs.

Termites provide food for burrowing owls.
Termites provide food for burrowing owls.

Pastures, open prairies, and farmland are the primary environments where the burrowing owl can be found. Their short stature allows them to remain hidden from view in low grasslands. Primarily brown in color, they have white spots on the head and white stripes across the chest. Their coloring also aids in camouflaging them while on the ground.

Burrowing owls have long legs, which give them the ability to run along the ground and hunt for prey. During the day they feed on termites, beetles, and other insects. Fruits, seeds, and lizards are also components of their diet. Burrowing owls can be very active at sunset and they will hunt for mice and other rodents as it gets dark. They hunt for rodents by diving down on them from above.

Farmland is a primary environment where the burrowing owl can be found.
Farmland is a primary environment where the burrowing owl can be found.

The geographic range of the burrowing owl includes areas of the western United States, southwestern Canada, and Florida. They can also be found throughout Mexico and in the South American countries of Brazil and Argentina. Owls living in areas with colder temperatures migrate to warmer areas during the winter months.

Springtime is the breeding season for the burrowing owl. The female owl can lay up to 12 eggs that she will care for in the burrow for about a month until they hatch. Male owls will stand watch outside the burrow and then assist in feeding the newborn chicks after they hatch. At one month of age, the chicks are able to begin wandering on their own. The parents will care for the young for a few months.

Burrowing owls will be active at sunset and hunt as it gets dark.
Burrowing owls will be active at sunset and hunt as it gets dark.

Natural predators of these owls include other large birds of prey, snakes, skunks, cats, dogs, and even armadillos. When threatened, the burrowing owl exhibits a characteristic bobbing up and down. The owl will then dive into the safety of the burrow.

Humans can also create a danger for the burrowing owl. Because these owls live on the ground, they are at risk of being hit by vehicles. As farmland and grasslands are developed, the natural habitat for the owl is disappearing. Human destruction of burrows also reduces the available nesting areas for the burrowing owl.

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    • Burrowing owls often take over abandoned prairie dog tunnels.
      By: Craig Hosterman
      Burrowing owls often take over abandoned prairie dog tunnels.
    • Termites provide food for burrowing owls.
      By: lirtlon
      Termites provide food for burrowing owls.
    • Farmland is a primary environment where the burrowing owl can be found.
      By: njr_2011
      Farmland is a primary environment where the burrowing owl can be found.
    • Burrowing owls will be active at sunset and hunt as it gets dark.
      By: schankz
      Burrowing owls will be active at sunset and hunt as it gets dark.