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Burrowing Owl Life History


GrasslandsBurrowing 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 burrowsBack to top


Small AnimalsBurrowing 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.Back to top


Nest Placement

BurrowNesting 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.

Nest Description

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 Facts

Clutch Size:2-12 eggs
Egg Length:1.2-1.3 in (3-3.4 cm)
Egg Width:1.0-1.1 in (2.5-2.8 cm)
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.
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Ground ForagerBurrowing 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.Back to top


Low Concern

Burrowing Owls are still numerous, but populations have declined in Canada by nearly 3.5% per year, and in some states by over 4% per year between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Declines have been particularly sharp in Florida, the Dakotas, the Midwest, and coastal California. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 18 million and rates them 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. 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.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Poulin, Ray G., L. Danielle Todd, E. A. Haug, B. A. Millsap and Mark S. Martell. (2011). Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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