Burrowing Owl

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Common Name: Burrowing Owl
Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia

Size: 8 ½ - 11 inches (21.6-28 cm) Wingspan: 20-24 inches (50.8-61.0 cm)

Habitat: North and South America; present in North America, and breed across the grassland regions of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They occur in all states west of the Mississippi Valley, breed south through the western and mid-western States. A separate subspecies is found in Florida and the Caribbean Islands. They extend south into Mexico, Central America and South America but populations have declined in many areas due to human-caused habitat loss or alteration. Birds from the northern part of the U.S. and Canada are migratory.

They are commonly found in open, dry grasslands, agricultural and range lands, and desert habitats often associated with burrowing animals, particularly prairie dogs, ground squirrels and badgers. They can also inhabit grass, forb, and shrub stages of pinyon and ponderosa pine habitats. They commonly perch on fence posts or on top of mounds outside the burrow.

Status: Near-threatened to Endangered. Global population: 2,000,000. The burrowing owl is endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico, and a species of special concern in Florida and most of the western USA. It is a state endangered species in Colorado. It is common and widespread in open regions of many Neotropical countries, where they sometimes even inhabit fields and parks in cities. While North American populations are in decline, regions bordering the Amazon Rainforest they are spreading due to deforestation.

The major reasons for declining populations in North America are control programs for prairie dogs and loss of habitat, although burrowing owls readily inhabit some anthropogenic landscapes, such as airport grasslands or golf courses.

Where the presence of burrowing owls conflicts with development interests, a passive relocation technique has been applied successfully: rather than capturing the birds and transporting them to a new site (which may be stressful and prone to failure), the owls are half-coerced, half-enticed to move on their own accord.

Burrowing owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. They are also included in CITES Appendix II.

Diet: Feeding on a wide variety of prey, changing food habits as location and time of year determine availability. Large arthropods, mainly beetles, termites and grasshoppers, comprise a large portion of their diet. Small mammals, especially mice, rats, gophers, and ground squirrels, are also important food items. Unlike other owls, they also eat fruits and seeds, especially the fruit of Tesajilla and prickly pear cactus.

Most activity occurs at dawn and dusk. They hunt 24 hours a day when feeding young.

Nesting: The nesting season begins in late March or April. Burrowing Owls are usually monogamous but occasionally a male will have 2 mates. Courtship displays include flashing white markings, cooing, bowing, scratching and nipping. The male performs display flights, rising quickly to 30 meters (100 feet), hovering for 5 to 10 seconds, then dropping 15 meters (50 feet). This sequence is repeated many times. Circling flights also occur. Burrowing Owls nest underground in abandoned burrows dug by mammals or if soil conditions allow they will dig their own burrows. They will also use man made nest boxes placed underground. They often line their nest with an assortment of dry materials. Adults usually return to the same burrow or a nearby area each year. One or more "satellite" burrows can usually be found near the nest burrow, and are used by adult males during the nesting period and by juvenile Owls for a few weeks after they emerge from the nest. 6 to 9 (sometimes up to 12) white eggs are laid a day apart, which are incubated for 28-30 days by the female only. The male brings food to the female during incubation, and stands guard near the burrow by day. The care of the young while still in the nest is performed by the male. At 14 days, the young may be seen roosting at the entrance to the burrow, waiting for the adults to return with food. They leave the nest at about 44 days and begin chasing living insects when 49-56 days old.

Cool Facts: The first published report of the Burrowing Owl was in 1782 by Giovanni Iganzio Molina, an Italian Jesuit priest stationed in Chile. The Burrowing Owl has also been known as Ground Owl, Prairie Dog Owl, Rattlesnake Owl, Howdy Owl, Cuckoo Owl, Tunnel Owl, Gopher Owl, and Hill Owl.

They are highly terrestrial, and are often seen perched on a mound of dirt, telegraph or fence post - frequently on one foot. They bob up and down when excited. Flight is with irregular, jerky wingbeats and they will frequently make long glides, interspersed with rapid wingbeats. They hover during hunting and courtship, and may flap their wings asynchronously (not up and down together).

Carl Hiaasen's young adult novel Hoot (2002) is about a group of school kids trying to stop the planned construction of a pancake house that would go hand in hand with the destruction of the burrowing owls' habitat in a small town in Florida was made into a movie called “Hoot” in 2006. Live burrowing owls were featured in the movie adaptation.

Found in Songbird ReMix Owls of the World Volume 1

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