- 7.5–9.8 in
- 21.7 in
- 5.3 oz
- About the same length/height as an American Robin but much bulkier; slightly smaller than a Western Screech-Owl.
- Chevêche des terriers (French)
- Lechuza llanera, Chicuate (Spanish)
- Unlike most owls in which the female is larger than the male, the sexes of the Burrowing Owl are the same size.
- Burrowing Owls often stow extra food to ensure an adequate supply during incubation and brooding. When food is plentiful, the birds' underground larders can reach prodigious sizes. One cache observed in Saskatchewan in 1997 contained more than 200 rodents.
- In the absence of suitable homes created by ground squirrels, prairie dogs, desert tortoises, or other burrowing animals, Burrowing Owls have been known to nest in piles of PVC pipe and other lairs unintentionally provided by humans. Conservationists make use of the owls' adaptability by supplying artificial burrows made of buckets, pipes, tubing, and other human-made materials.
- Burrowing Owls have a higher tolerance for carbon dioxide than other birds—an adaptation found in other burrowing animals, which spend long periods underground, where the gas can accumulate to higher levels than found above ground.
- Efforts to protect Burrowing Owl populations can turn into complex ecological juggling acts. On a naval base near San Diego, California, land managers had to balance the needs of declining Burrowing Owls with a colony of endangered Least Terns, whose chicks the owls sometimes preyed upon.
- Before laying eggs, Burrowing Owls carpet the entrances to their homes with animal dung, which attracts dung beetles and other insects that the owls then catch and eat. They may also collect bottle caps, metal foil, cigarette butts, paper scraps, and other bits of trash at the entrance, possibly signifying that the burrow is occupied.
- The oldest known Burrowing Owl was at least 9 years, 11 months old when it was sighted in California in 2014.
Burrowing Owls live in open, treeless areas with low, sparse vegetation, usually on gently sloping terrain. The owls can be found in grasslands, deserts, and steppe environments; on golf courses, pastures, agricultural fields, airport medians, and road embankments; in cemeteries and urban vacant lots. They are often associated with high densities of burrowing mammals such as prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and tortoises. Breeding pairs stay near a dedicated nesting burrow, while wintering owls may move around and may roost in tufts of vegetation rather than in burrows
Burrowing Owls eat invertebrates and small vertebrates, including lizards, birds, and mammals. Invertebrates, especially insects, constitute the majority of food items, while vertebrates make up the bulk of the diet by mass. Burrowing Owls commonly hunt grasshoppers, crickets, moths, beetles, mice, voles, and shrews. They also prey on dragonflies, giant water bugs, earwigs, caterpillars, scorpions, and earthworms, frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, turtles,and salamanders, bats, ground squirrels, small weasels, young rabbits, songbirds, waterbirds, baby ducks, and even young burrowing owls. Females catch more insects, mostly during the day; males take most of the vertebrates, mostly at night.
- Clutch Size
- 2–12 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1 broods
- Egg Length
- 1.2–1.3 in
- Egg Width
- 1–1.1 in
- Incubation Period
- 28–30 days
- Nestling Period
- 44–53 days
- Egg Description
- Smooth and white
- Condition at Hatching
- Newly hatched chicks are covered in grayish white down, helpless, with eyes closed.
The nest burrow can be several yards long and is usually less than 3 feet deep, but size depends on the mammal that originally excavated it. Burrows tend to make numerous twists and turns, with a mound of dirt at the entrance and an opening at least 4–6 inches wide. The owls often line their burrow with livestock manure, sometimes with feathers, grass, or other materials. When owls dig their own burrows, the process may take several days, but it takes them less time to prepare the burrow for nesting when they use an existing burrow.
Nesting owls tend to use areas with a high density of surrounding burrows, which may provide extra escape options for developing young. Preferred sites have loose soil, a bit of elevation to avoid flooding, and nearby lookouts such as dirt mounds, bushes, fence posts, or road signs. They use burrows dug by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, badgers, marmots, skunks, armadillos, kangaroo rats, and tortoises. Both members of a pair enlarge and maintain the existing burrow by digging with their beaks and kicking back soil with their feet. Most owls use existing burrows, but in Florida and the Caribbean, they usually excavate their own burrows and on rare occasions western owls excavate their own burrows. Nonmigrating owls use burrows year-round.
Burrowing Owls hunt at all hours of the day and night. Usually staying close to the ground, they fly, hover, walk, or run, seizing prey in their talons. Between forays for food, they sleep on dirt mounds at their burrow entrances or on depressions in the ground. Disturbed owls bob jerkily up and down, as do hunting owls pinpointing prey. They are mostly monogamous and breed close together in loose colonies. Females stay in or near the nest burrow until chicks fledge, while males tend to stand guard at a nearby burrow or perch. Males defend their territories against other males by vocalizing, displaying in a weaving crouch with feathers fluffed, or chasing and attacking with outstretched talons. Courting adults—mainly males—display by circling overhead or flying dozens of feet into the air, hovering for a few seconds and then rapidly descending. Pairs vocalize, rub bills, and preen, the male calling and presenting food to the female. Young owls play-hunt by jumping on each other, on prey brought by their parents, and on dung around the burrow.
Burrowing Owls are still numerous, but populations declined by about 33% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Declines have been particularly sharp in Florida, the Dakotas, and coastal California. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2 million, with 31% spending some part of the year in the U.S., and 15% in Mexico. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2016 State of the Birds Watch List. The species is listed as Endangered in Canada and as a species with Special Protection in Mexico. Agriculture and development have significantly diminished the colonies of prairie dogs and other burrowing animals where Burrowing Owls once nested by the hundreds. Pesticides, collisions with vehicles, shooting, entanglement in loose fences and similar manmade hazards, and hunting by introduced predators (including domestic cats and dogs) are also major sources of mortality. At the same time, Burrowing Owls have benefited from protective legislation, reintroduction and habitat protection programs, and artificial nest burrows. Because they do not require large uninterrupted stretches of habitat, these owls can benefit from the protection of relatively small patches of suitable land.
- Levy, D. J., R. S. Duncan, and C. F. Levins. 2004. Use of dung as a tool by burrowing owls. Nature 431: 39.
- Poulin, R., L.D. Todd, E. A. Haug, B. A. Millsap and M. S. Martell. 2011. Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 061 (A. Poole, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
- Bates, C. 2006. Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). In The Draft Desert Bird Conservation Plan: a strategy for reversing the decline of desert-associated birds in California. California Partners in Flight.
- Menzel, S. 2014. An assessment of artificial burrows for Burrowing Owls in Northern California. M.Sc. thesis. San Jose State University, Department of Environmental Studies, San Jose, CA.
- North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2016. The State of North
America’s Birds 2016. Environment and Climate Change Canada: Ottawa, Ontario.
- Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- Sauer, J.R., J.E. Hines, J.E. Fallon, K.L. Pardieck, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr., and W.A. Link. 2016. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015, Version 01.30.2015. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2016. Longevity records of North American Birds.
Migratory in northern part of range; partial migrant in SW states, where individuals make yearly decisions whether or not to migrate.
Find This Bird
Look for Burrowing Owls on wide expanses of short vegetation, especially around prairie dog towns and ground squirrel colonies. You may also find them using culverts and ditches. They are very well camouflaged and amazingly small compared to the wide-open areas where they live, so a spotting scope will be useful for viewing them. You’ll need to patiently scan a likely habitat—pay special attention to dirt mounds around burrow entrances, where owls often stand when they’re not hunting, sometimes with just their head and eyes showing. Your chances are best in early morning and late evening, when the owls tend to be more active.