The classic picture of an owl is typically one associated with Halloween: large, nocturnal creatures with wide eyes and a wise mind. With Halloween here, it’s the perfect time to take a look into a lesser-known owl species that can be found in some national parks: the burrowing owl.
The most notable difference between this owl and the rest of North America’s raptors is its habitat. As you might deduce from its name, the burrowing owl does not live in trees, but instead in small holes burrowed into the ground.
A Rather Small Owl
The burrowing owl is tiny, about 7-10 inches tall, weighing in at 4-9 ounces; picture a soda can, that’s about the same size of this little guy. The burrowing owl does not typically dig its own holes, although if it has to, it can. Because of its small size, however, it can fit into many types of existing holes, dug by other animals such as ground squirrels and prairie dogs.
These owls may nest alone, but more commonly will nest in a group. As a result, where you see one, there likely are others around.
The natural life span of a burrowing owl is 6-8 years, and they reach sexual maturity at around age 1. Mating begins in early spring, and once a female finds a suitable male, they mate for life. Sometimes if there is a lack of males, a male will mate with multiple females for life. Females typically lay 6-12 eggs that incubate for about a month before hatching.
After six weeks, the baby owl’s wings will have strengthened enough for them to fly, called fledging. Despite the owl’s physical ability for independence, it is not uncommon for the young to live with their parents for up to a year.
While visiting a burrowing owl’s nesting grounds, a traveler may see and hear some pretty unique things. Standing on long legs with small bodies, owls move around in somewhat of a bobbing dance-like fashion. They will hop around outside of their dugouts until they spot prey. If it’s flying insects they’re after, the owl will take flight and swoop down on them from a tree; but if it’s a ground mammal (such as mole or mice), reptile or amphibian, the owl will actually run on the ground and surprise prey from behind by hiding behind rocks or piles of dirt.
The burrowing owl may hunt at any hour during the night or day, but are primarily crepuscular hunters, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. They are not necessarily nocturnal, however they do usually take a nap during the hottest point in the day.
A Home In The Desert
Burrowing owls prefer to nest in dry grasslands or deserts. When an owl spots danger near its burrow, they’ll let out a warning that sounds like a chatter to the rest of the clan. They create a coo-coo noise to define their territory to other owls, or defend their territory to predators. When feeling threatened by a predator, the owls, specifically the young owlets, can emit a sound that mimics the rattle of a rattlesnake to scare away the approaching threat.
Along with wild grasslands and deserts, burrowing owls are also often found near airports, golf courses, vacant urban lots, and other places populated by people. Unlike many other owl species, the burrowing owl is much more comfortable living near humans.
Unfortunately, it is because of this that their greatest life threat is loss of habitat due to land development. There was even a popular book, later turned into a movie, Hoot, that centers on the story of children trying to save a nest of burrowing owls from the planned construction of a pancake house in Florida.
The second greatest threat to the burrowing owl are pest control measures, such as pesticides used to rid populated areas of things like squirrels, crickets, grasshoppers, and beetles. Since the burrowing owl often makes a home out of abandoned squirrel burrows, the residual pesticides harms them in the home, and also in their diet of those insects infected by pesticides.
In recent years, the increase of urban and suburban sprawl have made automobiles another contender of greatest threat to the burrowing owl. In addition to the threats from humans bring, the burrowing owl has natural predators, too. Coyotes, birds of prey, and feral cats and dogs are the most common of these natural predators.
Because of these threats, the burrowing owl is considered a Bird of Conservation Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and is federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.
Not all of the burrowing owls migrate. If they live in Canada, or in the northern regions of the United States, many will fly down to the southern regions of the United States, or Mexico.
Burrowing owls that already live in warmer climates, such as in the Southern region of the U.S. or in Mexico, will remain there year-round.
Travelers can find burrowing owls in a number of places. The northwest and southwest regions of North America, as well as Florida, are the most common locations. Some specific parks that have a higher number of burrowing owls include Big Bend National Park in Texas and Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
Hadley Kunz is a Traveler intern. A recent West Virginia University graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism, she grew up with a regular diet of outings in the Poconos, and expanded that once in college to outdoors locations in Pennslyvania, West Virginia, Colorado and Utah. She recently wrote about Fairy Shrimp for the Traveler.