One of the joys of visiting the
western United States was the possibility of seeing a
Burrowing Owl, one of the rarest birds that lives on the
American prairie. This animal makes its home in prairie
dog towns, living in abandoned burrows. Expansion by
people into the prairie has caused a decline in prairie
dog communities and without these towns burrowing owls
have a shortage of homes to nest and lay their eggs.
Continuation of this trend may eliminate burrowing owls
The burrowing owl belongs to the
owl family, Strigidae, in the Avian Order Strigiformes.
Its scientific name is Speotyto cunicularia, derived
from the Greek words "speo", meaning cave and "tyto",
meaning owl, and the Latin word "cunicularus", meaning
The upper body of the burrowing
owl is brown, mottled with off white spots. The
remainder of the body is white with dark brown barring.
Its legs are long, and the fronts of the legs are
feathered. The burrowing owl possesses a white facial
disc and yellow irises. The sexes are similar in
Burrowing Owl Habitat/Diet
The burrowing owl can be found on
open, treeless prairie in western North America down
through South America. Isolated populations are also
located in Florida and the Caribbean. The burrowing owl
makes its home in the discarded burrows of prairie dogs,
woodchucks, viscachas, wolves, foxes, skunks, badgers,
armadillos and gopher tortoises.
Burrowing owls eat insects, small
mammals (including young prairie dogs), lizards, snakes,
frogs and scorpions.
Burrowing owls are diurnal. They
make their homes in the abandoned burrows of other
animals. The owl may or may not enlarge these burrows as
needed when they move in. As a last resort, if no
abandoned burrows are available, burrowing owls
sometimes dig their own. These owls tend to gather in
colonies of 1012 pairs in a 23 acre area. However,
they are sometimes found in isolated pairs.
Burrowing owls will decorate their
burrows with bits of cattle or bison dung and other
materials in order to camouflage their nests from
predators. In urban areas, they have been known to use
garbage and cigarette butts.
Burrowing owls can often be found
perched on rocks, fence posts or branches. Perches
improve the owls ability to spot their prey as well as
predators which may harm them. Perching also enables the
owl to elevate itself from the extremely hot ground of
the midday summer prairie. When overheated, burrowing
owls might also drop their wings to shade their legs, a
form of thermoregulation.
Burrowing owls demonstrate a
unique defense against predators: when threatened, both
young and adult owls hiss from inside their burrows
imitating the sound of a rattlesnake to deter the
predator from entering.
Burrowing owls reach sexual
maturity at one year of age. Nesting generally occurs
between March and July. The female owl lays 611 pure
white eggs (usually 8 or 9) in a chamber at the end of a
burrow. Both parents incubate the eggs for approximately
Burrowing Owl History
Burrowing owls were once also
found in several islands in the West Indies. But they
disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century
following the introduction of the mongoose.
Our Experiences with Burrowing
We were fortunate enough to have
several encounters with Burrowing Owl while out in South
Dakota. We first spotted a Burrowing Owl at a great
distance while making observations in a prairie dog town
at Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. Days later, we were
able to accompany Randy Griebel (a graduate student from
the University of Nebraska) who was studying the
Burrowing Owl population of Buffalo Gap National
Grasslands. He took us to an abandoned prairie dog
burrow that was being used as a nesting site for a pair
of burrowing owls. With his help we were able to observe
the eggs using fiber-optic camera equipment.
Burrowing Owl Conservation
The greatest threat to the
survival of the burrowing owl is loss of habitat due to
human activity. Alteration of the prairie for
agricultural purposes results in a serious reduction in
available habitat. The large-scale destruction of
prairie dog colonies also significantly reduces the
availability of suitable habitat.
diurnal - active during the day
thermoregulation - an organism's
ability to maintain its body temperature within certain
boundaries when the surrounding temperature is different