Burrowing Owl





One of the easiest owls to find and watch is the Burrowing Owl, which is why it is a favorite among many birders. These appealing little owls average 8 to 10 inches tall, but have an impressive array of regional names, including billy owl, long-legged owl, prairie dog owl, howdy owl, rattlesnake owl, cuckoo owl, tunnel owl, hill owl and ground owl. Their scientific name, Athene cunicularia, refers to Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom (she loved owls) and the Latin (cunicularia) for miner or burrower.


This seemingly tame owl can be seen in the daylight standing guard in front of its burrow.  With solemn yellow eyes, it gazes steadily at the intruder, not yielding into its tunnel until humans get quite close.  Ground squirrels or prairie dogs dig out the burrows.  The male Burrowing Owl keeps the burrow cleaned and prepares it for nesting.  The female incubates eggs alone, spending up to 30 days continuously on the nest while the male brings food.  Because of this, you can often distinguish between male and female Burrowing Owls; females usually have richer and warmer brownish coloration (especially on their head) from staying inside their burrows, while the males have a paler coloration from being bleached by the sun. Burrowing owls usually pair bond for a year. After courting, a nest site is chosen. If it needs to be made larger or spiffed up a bit, dirt is scratched and kicked out behind the digger.


Burrowing Owls are found in open fields on small mounds. They may be seen stretching, bobbing up and down and tilting their heads as they keep watch. They hunt day and night, taking more small mammals at night and large insects during the day. Grasshoppers, crickets, scorpions and termites are popular menu items.  These clever little owls will even bring cow pies, horse dung, and other animal scat to their burrows; the aromatic ambiance around the entrance attracts dung beetles that may become supper.  Reptiles and some birds may also be dinner for these owls. Horned lark and mourning dove have been found in their pellets. They can catch larger insects in mid-air or chase and pounce on the ground. They are able to hover and can flap their wings asynchronously (not uniformly up and down) before diving, or may silently glide from a perch. The prey is ingested whole but they cannot digest fur, feathers, bones or insect chitinous exoskeletons well so they regurgitate the skeletons and fur in pellets. Unlike other owls, they also eat fruits and seeds.

Often they perch on fence posts to view the area for food and for predators, wary of hawks, snakes, and fox. The young owlets are not without an effective defense. They are able to make a sound that mimics a rattlesnake buzz that works nicely.


Amazingly, the Burrowing Owl is well adapted to human agricultural practices. Despite this adaptation, so much land in California is being converted by urban sprawl that the Burrowing Owl has been already eliminated from 5 counties, and is close to extirpation in 6 more counties in just the last 25 years.  It has been designated a Species of Special Concern in California for over 35-years, having been placed on all 3 editions of this list (1978, 1994, and 2008)!  While considered “abundant” in Orange County in 1975, in 2001 only 9 nesting pairs could be found.

The stronghold of the Burrowing Owl in California has been the San Joaquin Valley and Imperial Valley. Burrows are frequently built along canal banks.  It also nests throughout the West and sometimes western Canada.  Here in California, the owls are year-round residents.  Most nest on private property and have no protection.  In the summer of 2003, the Santa Clara Audubon and several other organizations petitioned the California Fish and Game to list the species as threatened or endangered.  Certainly the preservation of agricultural land would help forestall the decline of this unique owl.


One of the most reliable places to see Burrowing Owls in Tulare County is along Road 88 between W. Sierra Avenue/Avenue 56 and the Pixley NWR parking lot.  Road 88 is 5.5 miles from Earlimart.  A couple pairs of Burrowing Owls have been occupying this one-mile section of road year-round now for several years. They can be seen on the dirt dike lining the eastern edge of Road 88; one pair nests in a ground squirrel hole within the first 50 yards of W. Sierra Avenue/Avenue 56, and the other nests around the ponding basin across from the lone farmhouse.



A CHEROKEE STORY (Fletcher, 1990)


When the animals and plants were made- we do not know by whom- they were told to watch and keep awake for seven night, just as young men now fast and keep awake when they pray to their medicine.  They tried to do this, and nearly all were awake through the first night, but the next night several dropped off to sleep, and the third night others were asleep, and then others, until on the seventh night, of all the animals only the owl, panther and one or two more were still awake.  To these were given the power to see and to go about in the dark, and to make prey of the birds and animals which must sleep at night.





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