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Burrowing Owl

Order:  Strigiformes - owls

Family:  Strigidae - true owls – excludes the barn owls

Scientific Name:  Athene cunicularia


Burrowing owlDescription Burrowing owls are small, long-legged owls, standing 9-11 inches tall.  Females are slightly larger than males.  They have long, rounded wings, and short tails.  They have round heads, with an oval-shaped ruff around the face and a broad buff-white eyebrow.  Their eyes are large and lemon-yellow in color.  The upperparts are brown, spotted with paler brown, buff, or white.  The wing and tail feathers are brown with buff-white bars.  The underparts are buff-white with broad brown bars.  Males and females look similar, but females may be more heavily barred on the underparts. 


RangeHome Range:   Widely distributed across southwestern Canada, western and central United States, West Indies (extending north into Florida), Mexico, Central America,
and South America.


Habitat Type:   A variety of dry and open habitats (treeless plains, prairie, pampas, desert, or human- altered habitats such as farmland and golf courses).


Reproduction:   Burrowing owls breed in March-August in North America.  They are usually monogamous.  During courtship the male makes circular flight displays, presents food to the female, and sings, and both partners preen each other’s heads and faces.  Burrowing owls enlarge mammal burrows by kicking dirt backward and out of the hole.  The nest chamber is lined with cow chips, horse dung, food debris, dry grass, weeds, pellets, and feathers.  Three to eleven white eggs are laid in the underground burrow.  During the incubation period (28-30 days), the female stays in the burrow and is fed by the male.  The young owls will leave the burrow and begin foraging at 3 to 4 weeks of age.  They can breed at 1 year.


Diet in the Wild:   Mostly arthropods and small mammals, also amphibians and reptiles.


Diet in the Zoo:  Bird of prey diet, mice, and rat pups.


General Information:   The burrowing owl’s genus name comes from the Greek goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athene, to whom the owl was a sacred bird.  The species name is Latin for burrower or miner.  Burrowing owls live in burrows that have been abandoned by other animals, such as ground squirrels, badgers, or prairie dogs.  The owls may enlarge the burrow by scratching with their feet or digging with their beaks.  A few populations dig their own burrows, especially in Florida where few burrowing mammals are found.  They are one of the only owls to transport materials for lining their nests, and if pieces of dung or other lining materials are removed from the nest, the owls promptly replace them.  Burrowing owls are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), but they have been seen hunting throughout the day and night.  They usually hunt insects by daylight, and small mammals after dark.  They hunt by hopping or running along the ground, and they can also hover in the air above vegetation to catch insects.  They are commonly seen perched on the ground outside their burrow, or on fence posts.  They bob their head quickly up and down when agitated.  When disturbed in their burrow, young owls make a sound that very convincingly mimics a rattlesnake to discourage predators. 


Conservation Status:  Many burrowing owl populations are declining due to intensive agriculture, collisions with vehicles, exposure to pollutants, and disturbance by people, dogs, or construction equipment.  Other human activities, such as mowing, cattle grazing, and wetland drainage, are creating suitable habitat for burrowing owls.  They are still relatively common in parts of North America.  They are listed on CITES appendix ll.


Predators:  larger birds of prey, rattlesnakes, opossums, bobcats, weasels, skunk, badger, and coyote.



Birds In Kansas.  1989.  M.C. Thompson and C. Ely.  University of Kansas Museum of Natural History.  pp. 337-338.

Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 5.  1999.  Ed. J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal.  Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.  p. 227.

Owls of the Northern Hemisphere.  1988.  K.H. Voous.  MIT Press, Cambridge.  pp. 193-199.