Burrowing owls are among the smallest members of the owl family. They measure 19-25cm (7.5-10in) long with a wingspan of 1.5-1.7m (5-5.6ft) across. Their weight averages 125-250g (4-9oz). Females tend to be slightly smaller than males.
Across the body their feathers are pale brown. This is spotted and barred across the body with white. Above the eyes they have a patch of white feathers which resemble an eyebrow. Another white stripe runs along the chin.
They have bright yellow eyes which are forward facing to give them binocular vision which helps them to judge distance better. This does lead to a limited field of vision and to account for this they will turn their head large amounts to allow them to see the sides of their body.
They have long legs relative to their body size with large talons which help to catch their prey. The long legs are used when excavating their burrows. They are covered with short, downy feathers which stop them from getting clogged with dirt.
To ensure an adequate supply of food during their incubation and brooding periods they will stow excess food throughout the year. During times of plentiful food these larders will grow incredibly large. One was found to contain 200 rodents.
Record 9yrs 11mnths
Burrowing owls can be found in North, Central and South America. Here they live in the following countries – Argentina, Aruba, Bahamas, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Falkland Islands, Panama, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.
The species is considered extinct in Antigua and Barbuda along with Guadeloupe.
They make their home in savanna, shrubland, prairies, grasslands and desert habitats.
Where humans live close to the burrowing owl they can be found on vacant lots, airports, golf courses and fairgrounds.
As their name suggests they will seek shelter in a burrow. Most often they make use of a burrow dug by another animal. These may include badgers, desert and gopher tortoises, armadillos, skunks, prairie dogs, coyotes and foxes. In some areas they will dig their own burrow.
Due to burrowing owls living underground they have a higher tolerance to carbon dioxide which accumulates here in higher quantities.
Once they find a suitable burrow they will line it with grass and feathers. Animal dung is also gathered and placed in the den. It is thought this masks the smell of the owls. Some may also be placed outside to help attract insects that they can eat.
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Due to their wide range the breeding season is variable but typically falls between February and May.
The birds will perform a courtship display in which they fly up, hover in the air and then descend quickly to the ground. Pairs are typically monogamous once they come together. At the nest site the pair will nibble at each other’s bill and preen one another.
Colonies of several burrowing owl pairs may nest in the same area.
Nesting takes place in the burrow. The pair will deposit between three and twelve eggs there. These are incubated for 21 to 28 days. While the female incubates the egg the male will sit outside and guard the nest.
The chicks remain in the burrow for two weeks at which point they make their first trips outside.
Once they start heading outside the parents will provide insects for them to practice pouncing on.
They can first fly at six weeks old.
Sexual maturity is reached at 10 months old.
In some parts of their range they produce two clutches each year but one is most common.
Hunting can occur both during the day and night. Much of this hunting takes place on the ground. They may also be seen resting on low fence posts or rocks.
Their main vocalization is a two part coo-hoo call.
Predators and Threats
Humans threaten them through development in their habitat. They are also affected by pesticides in their food chain as they rely on insects.
When disturbed they often run or flatten themselves against the ground when they are disturbed.
When threatened they hide in the burrow and make a hiss which sounds like a rattlesnake to scare off the threat.
Humans inadvertently provide burrows to them in the form of piles of PVC pipe. This can assist in their conservation as conservationists can provide them an artificial nest site to inhabit.
These birds are often called ‘howdy birds’ in reference to the way they seem to nod at passerbys from their burrow entrances.
One translation of their scientific name, Athene cunicularia is “wise burrower.”
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Photo Gallery Right
Mike's Birds from Riverside, CA, US, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
All Other Images
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San Diego Zoo Kids. 2020. Burrowing Owl. [online] Available at: <https://kids.sandiegozoo.org/animals/burrowing-owl> [Accessed 20 November 2020].
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Allaboutbirds.org. 2020. Burrowing Owl Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab Of Ornithology. [online] Available at: <https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Burrowing_Owl/overview> [Accessed 20 November 2020].