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Burrowing Owl

Athene cunicularia ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Owls are unmistakable birds, and that goes double for a long-legged owl that hunts on the ground during the day. Burrowing Owls are small, sandy colored owls with bright-yellow eyes. They live underground in burrows they’ve dug themselves or taken over from a prairie dog, ground squirrel, or tortoise. They live in grasslands, deserts, and other open habitats, where they hunt mainly insects and rodents. Their numbers have declined sharply with human alteration of their habitat and the decline of prairie dogs and ground squirrels.

Keys to identification Help

Owls
Owls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Burrowing Owls are small owls with long legs and short tails. The head is rounded and does not have ear tufts.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults are brown birds mottled with sandy-pale spots on the upperparts. The breast is spotted, grading to dark brown bars on the belly. They have a bold white throat and eyebrows, and yellow eyes. The brown juveniles are less mottled than adults, with buffy-yellow underparts and wing patch.

  • Behavior

    Burrowing Owls spend most of their time on the ground or on low perches such as fence posts. They hunt close to the ground catching insects and small animals. When alarmed they jerk their bodies quickly up and down. They are active during the day.

  • Habitat

    Burrowing Owls live in open habitats with sparse vegetation such as prairie, pastures, desert or shrubsteppe, and airports. In parts of their range they are closely associated with prairie dogs and ground squirrels, whose burrows they use for nests.

Range Map Help

Burrowing Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Burrowing Owl

    Adult
    • Small, long-legged owl of open pastures and grasslands
    • Mostly found walking on ground, or making short flights to low perches
    • Distinctive facial pattern with brown cap, white eyebrows, and large yellow eyes
    • Mottled brown and white overall
    • © Bob Gunderson, Antioch, California, May 2011
  • Family group

    Burrowing Owl

    Family group
    • Nests colonially in burrows, often using prairie dog dens
    • Very long legs and distinctive, "flattened" head shape
    • Mottled brown and white
    • Large yellow eyes
    • © Ned Harris, Tucson, Arizona, June 2009
  • Adult

    Burrowing Owl

    Adult
    • More terrestrial than any other North American owl
    • Long legs and wings
    • "Flattened" head
    • Large, yellow eyes
    • © Joshua Clark, Broward County, Florida, April 2012

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Short-eared Owl

    Adult
    • Shorter legs and longer wings than Burrowing Owl
    • Obvious facial disc
    • Often seen soaring and fluttering low over fields and marshes
    • Does not walk on ground
    • © Pete Blanchard, Britain, October 2012

Similar Species

Short-eared Owl is much larger than Burrowing Owl and has much shorter legs relative to its body size. Other small owls that lack ear tufts, such as Northern Saw-whet Owl, tend to occur in forests and are unlikely to be seen on the ground in open areas. Northern Pygmy-Owl is active during the day, but tends to perch in trees rather than on the ground. It has short legs and a much longer tail than Burrowing Owl.

Regional Differences

Burrowing Owls have a very wide range that extends to the tip of South America and includes many subspecies, but there are few clear differences in plumage. The subspecies that occurs in Florida and the Caribbean tends to be slightly smaller, with whiter spots, than Burrowing Owls of the West.

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.

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Burrowing Owls of the Salton Sea: story and photos in Living Bird magazine

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