Cast your eyes close to the ground to catch a glimpse of the burrowing owl.
Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Our favorite owl is a comical character, with an eternally quizzical look on its face. It has bright yellow eyes, prominent white eyebrows, and long unfeathered legs.
Other owls tend to nest in trees, but the burrowing owl nests underground. Most owls spend their time in forests, but the burrowing owl makes its home on the flatlands. And while other owls live a solitary existence, this one likes company and, as long as a good food supply is available, lives in small colonies with others of its kind.
Slightly larger than a robin and weighing in at around six ounces, the burrowing owl is one of the smallest raptors. But it makes up for its diminutive size with plenty of attitude. Where the typical owl is quite secretive, you actually can approach a burrowing owl without it flying away. Standing atop a mound near the entrance to its burrow, the owl will swivel its head to watch as you get closer “” its eyes can’t move as ours do “” and, as it becomes agitated, it will begin to bob up and down. That’s a sign you’ve gotten a bit too close.
When the bird feels threatened, in addition to the distinctive bobbing motion, it will fluff up its feathers to appear larger. Both male and female burrowing owls may attempt to chase off intruders. As a last resort, the owl, instead of flying away, will drop down into its hole for safety.
Although capable of digging a nest using its bill and talons, the burrowing owl almost always appropriates another creature’s abandoned hole and remodels it. It will use the former homes of ground squirrels, prairie dogs, badgers, and, in Florida, even the burrows dug by tortoises and armadillos. The finished burrows may be up to 8 feet long, with the actual nest area as much as 3 feet underground. Each nest burrow will have at least one turn, and there is always a mound of dirt at the entrance to serve as a lookout post.
The burrowing owl is easier to see than other owls, not only because it lives out in the open, but because it is more active during daylight hours. Trees are seldom part of its habitat, so it likes to sit on fence posts or other elevated spots while watching for flying insects or small scurrying rodents. This owl uses a variety of hunting techniques: running and chasing grasshoppers and beetles across the ground, swooping down from a perch when it spots moving prey, or even catching large insects on the wing. Unlike other owls, the burrowing owl also will eat fruit and seeds.
The nesting season for burrowing owls begins in late March for those living in the southern United States. These owls tend to stay in the same location year-round and often will reuse a burrow for several years. Birds from farther north are migratory, spending their winters in the south and returning north in the spring. Because of the climate, they start nesting later. (Burrowing owls nest as far north as portions of Canada.)
Once a pair has selected a burrow, both the male and female will take courtship flights, ascending to about 100 feet, hovering for five or 10 seconds, and then dropping rapidly to 50 feet. They repeat this over and over. The male also takes flights in circles with a diameter of approximately 120 feet.
The female lays up to a dozen eggs (typically nine). She incubates them for three to four weeks while the male provides food and stands guard outside the burrow. At hatching the chicks’ eyes are completely closed, making them entirely dependent upon the parent birds for survival. Within several weeks the young can be seen outside the burrow entrance, waiting for their parents to return with food. It will be around 45 days before they can chase down insects on their own. The adults may continue providing some food for as long as three months.
Because part of the burrowing owl population is migratory, the birds may appear in unlikely places. But if you want to get a firsthand look at them, your best bet is to plan a trip to either Florida or the western United States.
At one time, burrowing owls were fairly widespread in all states west of the Mississippi Valley. Early accounts in California noted that they were among the most commonly seen birds. Even as late as 1975 the owls were very easy to find in Southern California. But by the early years of this century, the breeding population had been all but eliminated from the California coast because of loss of habitat.
Since many digging animals (ground squirrels, prairie dogs, etc.) are considered pests and attempts have been made to eliminate them, fewer nesting sites remain for burrowing owls to use. And since the owls need relatively flat land as a living area (about an acre per owl), they are often forced to compete with others wanting the same environment “” farmers and housing developers.
The number of burrowing owl colonies in California declined by almost 60 percent between the early 1980s and the early 1990s. It is estimated that their numbers decrease by approximately eight percent each year because of urban development. Even with such losses, the owls keep trying to adapt, appearing in areas such as airports, golf courses, and along the uncultivated edges of agricultural fields. Fortunately, they are somewhat tolerant of the presence of humans.
Burrowing owls have become more difficult to locate, but it’s worth the effort. One of the ways we find them is by slowly driving little-used roads through agricultural areas where irrigation canals border the pavement. The owls sometimes nest in holes in the canal walls and use the top of the wall as an observation post. A few times we’ve been lucky enough to see an entire burrowing owl family standing side by side, entertaining themselves by watching the crazy tourists drive by.