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Burrowing Owl

Athene cunicularia

  1. Not Evaluated
  2. Data Deficient
  3. Least Concern
  4. Near Threatened
  5. Vulnerable
  6. Endangered
  7. Critically Endangered
  8. Extinct in the Wild
  9. Extinct

About Us

The burrowing owl gets its name from its unusual nesting habit of living in a burrow. As a small species, the best way to protect themselves is to nest underground. The scientific name Athene cunicularia is from the Greek goddess ‘Athena’, who had an owl as her symbol, and the Latin ‘cunicularia’, meaning ‘miner’ or ‘burrower’. They are one of few animals for which deforestation is a benefit, as it can create the perfect habitat for them. They are often found living on golf courses and airport runways.

Here at Woburn we have two burrowing owls, brother and sister, Dodger and Digger. Dodger is one half of our dynamic duo, and will demonstrate how the burrowing owls like to burrow. He is a quick flyer and is nick named our ‘pocket rocket’. Digger is the other half of the duo. She likes to show her natural hunting instincts by chasing earthworms during the demonstrations.

Distribution
Throughout the Americas and central and western Canada
Habitat
Open dry grasslands and deserts, often golf courses and airports
Height
19cm to 25cm in length
Weight
160g to 240g
Lifespan
Wild from 6 to 8 years, in captivity up to 10 years
Threats
Habitat destruction, pesticide poisoning and traffic accidents

Physical Features

The burrowing owl is a small species, weighing only 150g. They have a small body, with a round head, and long legs. The feathers are mainly a sandy brown colour, with some white spots on the chest, and a white chin stripe and white eyebrows. The eyes are a bright yellow in colour.

In most species of owl the female is bigger; however it is the male burrowing owl who is slightly bigger.

The wings of an owl are finely serrated so that they can fly silently. This is to allow the owl to approach its prey silently without it hearing it first, and so that they owl itself can hear its prey over its own sounds.

The eyes of owls are adapted to be like a pair of binoculars. They are fixed in place, allowing for detailed long distance vision for hunting, but this does mean their close range vision is very poor.  To look around the owl has to move its entire head, it is a common myth that they can turn their head all the way around, it actually only rotates around 270 degrees horizontally, and around 90 degrees vertically. To be able to do this the owl has extra bones in their neck. Most vertebrates, including us, only have 7 vertebrae in their neck, whereas an owl has 14.

To cope with the lack of short range vision they have a group of sensitive feathers, called crines, around their beak. These sensitive feathers are used to locate dead prey.

Owls have very sensitive hearing, used to locate prey either hidden under snow or other coverings, or to hunt in the dark. Owl’s ears are holes hidden beneath the feathers, one further up than the other, allowing the owl to pinpoint the location of a sound. This ability lets them build a sort of sound map and locate prey, often in complete darkness, by sound alone. The feathers of an owl’s face help with this hearing, by forming a facial disk, a disk of feathers used like a satellite dish to help point any sound towards these ears.

Diet and Hunting Behaviour

The diet consists of a mix of insects, small frogs, lizards, and small rodents. The amount of each prey item in the diet will vary throughout the year with food availability, and if there is a lack of food the burrowing owl may even resort to eating fruit and seeds to survive.

Burrowing owls are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. This is due to their diet mostly containing insects, which would only be available to hunt during the day. They are very active hunters, and may hunt throughout the day and night, to keep a stock of food in their burrow if food supplies get low.

 They will hunt for food by hovering above prey before swooping down or by hunting from a perch. They will also spent time on the ground, walking or running after prey, and can catch insects on the wing.

They will line the entrance to their burrow with larger animal’s dung. This acts as a deterrent to predators, confusing them, but also works to attract insects, especially dung beetles, to the entrance of the nest to be eaten.

The wings of an owl are finely serrated so that they can fly silently. This is to allow the owl to approach its prey silently without it hearing it first, and so that they owl itself can hear its prey over its own sounds.

Owls produce a pellet, a small package of all the parts of their food they cannot digest, such as the bones and fur or feathers and insect casings.

Communication

The burrowing owl uses a range of communication.  They do not hoot like most owls, but have several distinct calls. A rapid ‘coo-coo-roo’ is their mating call, with an alarm call sounding like a cackling ‘cack-cack-cack-cack’, and a shrill scream is made by a wounded or alarmed bird.

The young, or owlets, learn to make an impersonation of a rattle snake, to deter any predators from coming near the burrow entrance. If this call does not work, they will throw themselves onto their back and kick out with their feet and talons.

When threatened or acting aggressively they will make a loud clicking noise with their beak. Calling can be territorial, threatening, or used during courtship.

There is a white patch on the throat, which is exposed when the bird calls, this is thought to enhance communication during darker times, allowing others to recognise calling individuals by the throat patches.

Breeding

The burrowing owls most distinctive feature is its unusual nesting behaviour.  As their name suggests they nest in burrows underground. They can dig burrows themselves, but most often will move into abandoned small mammal burrows, like prairie dogs, or viscachas.

Burrowing owls are monogamous, often pairing for life. They will often live in small groups, sharing large burrow systems, to give safety in numbers.

Depending on their location some burrowing owls will remain at their burrow all year round, and some will migrate south for the winter. Outside the breeding season they will spend their days resting in the burrow, and come out to hunt at dusk and dawn, however during breeding they will go out to forage at any time of day or night.

The female will lay up to eleven eggs, which are incubated for around a month. During this time the male will hunt for food and return to the nest to feed the female. For the initial period after their young hatch the female will stay with them and still reply on the male, but as the young become more developed she will start to leave the nest and join the male to forage for food.  The young will fledge at around 44 days, and will start to join the parents in foraging for food.

While the young are in the nest they will mimic the noise of a rattle snake to deter any predators.

The burrowing owl reaches sexual maturity at around one year, and can live up to 8 years in the wild, or up to 10 years in captivity.

Husbandry

All of our birds of prey are flown daily. This has many benefits to the animal. Firstly it allows the animal to exercise, keeping them fit, and developing flying muscles. It also allows them to perform their natural behaviours, for some of our birds of prey this may include various hunting techniques such as catching prey mid-flight, and chasing down ground prey, or killing a (rubber) snake.

Each bird has a varied diet, just as it would in the wild, mimicking the varying nutritional properties of each food type and the quantities.

Threats and Conservation

The burrowing owl as a total population is not threatened, and has a stable numbers; however in some regions of its range it is classed as endangered or threatened due to the decline within these small populations.

Natural predators for the burrowing owl include badgers, coyotes, snakes, raptors, cats and dogs. They are often killed by vehicles when crossing roads.

Although habitat destruction can cause problems for the burrowing owl, with grasslands and open plains being destroyed and used for building and urban development, it can also help them in some ways. It is a common sight to see a burrowing owl on a golf course, or airport, utilising the clear open grassy habitat created by them. Deforestation actually creates more habitats for the burrowing owl to hunt and nest.

Many conservation projects are currently in place to help the burrowing owl, including the use of artificial burrows in safe areas to encourage breeding, and protection of burrowing animals which provide old burrows for the owls to use. There are restriction in place on the use of insecticides and pesticides used in the vicinity of nest sites, and campaigns to stop their use all together.

They are listed as appendix II of CITES, which means the trade and export of this species is heavily regulated and controlled to protect them.

Fun Facts

Owls eyes are like a pair of binoculars, their fixed lenses give them fantastic long distance vision, but very poor short distance vision!

Burrowing owls surround the entrance to their nests with other animals dung to confuse predators, and to attract insects which they then eat!

Golf courses and airports are a favourite spot for burrowing owls to live!