Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl, Tania Thompson, Shutterstock

At a Glance

  • Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia
  • Population: 2 million
  • Trend:  Decreasing
  • Habitat: Open areas with sparse vegetation, such as prairie, pastures, or desert. Adapts to similar areas created by human activity, such as golf courses and airports.

Burrowing Owl map, NatureServeIn some parts of the American West, the long-legged Burrowing Owl is known as the “howdy owl.” These endearing raptors allow people to closely approach and will even nod an apparent greeting to human visitors.

True to their name, Burrowing Owls live underground, usually in a burrow taken over from a prairie dog, ground squirrel, or tortoise. They sometimes use natural rock cavities and human-made spaces. The owls may even dig burrows themselves in areas of soft or sandy soil.

Threats to the Burrowing Owl include habitat loss, pesticide use, and prairie dog eradication programs, which limit suitable burrowing habitat. Many are also killed in collisions with cars.

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Widespread Owl

Like the Short-eared Owl, the Burrowing Owl is widespread throughout the Americas, with up to 21 subspecies recognized. They range from southern Canada through southern Mexico and western Central America; are found in Florida and many Caribbean islands; and are widely distributed in South America from southern Brazil to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

Birds that breed in Canada and the northern United States usually migrate south to Mexico and the southern U.S. during winter months, but most Burrowing Owls are year-round residents.

Keeping the Larder Supplied

Unlike more "typical" owls such as Northern Spotted Owl and Short-eared Owl, Burrowing Owls are often active during the day. Still, they do most of their hunting from dusk until dawn, when they can use their night vision and acute hearing to great advantage. They prey on insects — grasshoppers, crickets, moths, and beetles — and mammals such as mice, voles, and shrews. Long legs enable this unusual owl to pursue its quarry on foot as well as in flight.

Burrowing Owls cache food, stashing it in their burrows to ensure an adequate supply during the nesting season. When prey is abundant, their underground larders can contain several hundred items!

Burrowing Owl at nest, Alan Wilson

Burrowing Owl at nest, by Alan Wilson

The female is larger than the male in most owl species, but both sexes of Burrowing Owl are similar in size and appearance. Pairs nest in close proximity, often in loose colonies.

Burrowing Owls line the entrance to their burrows with cattle dung. This behavior masks the birds' scent from potential predators and attracts beetles and other large insects, providing easy prey for young owls when they first leave the burrow.

Benefiting from BirdScapes

Burrowing Owls are found in ABC's Northern Great Plains BirdScape, where they benefit from ABC's work for one of its flagship species, Long-billed Curlew. These conservation efforts include retaining and enhancing native habitats, managing livestock grazing to restore and improve grasslands, and minimizing the use of pesticides to maintain invertebrates as a food source.

ABC is also working with partner Pronatura Noreste  to implement land stewardship practices in the El Tokio and Valles Centrales Birdscapes, where Burrowing Owls also occur.

These Mexican BirdScapes provide essential wintering habitat for the curlew and other grassland species such as Mountain Plover and Sprague's Pipit, as well as sheltering Worthen's Sparrow, a resident bird listed under the Alliance for Zero Extinction.

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