Athene cunicularia is found in North and South America. They live in the desert regions and grasslands of western North America, and also in the drier areas of Central and South America. Burrowing Owls spend their winters in Texas where they commonly breed. During the summer the owls also can be found in northern areas of the Great Plains and northern California (Snyder 2000; Interactive Broadcasting Company 1999).
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); neotropical (Native )
Global Range: (20,000 to >2,500,000 square km (about 8000 to >1,000,000 square miles)) Breeding range extends from southern interior British Columbia (nearly extirpated), southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, southwestern and south-central Manitoba south through the western United States, central Mexico, central and southern Florida, and the West Indies, and breeding also occurs locally in much of South America (Haug et al. 1993, AOU 1998). During the northern winter, the species withdraws from the northernmost portions of the breeding range in North America. Wintering occurs regularly southward to El Salvador, casually or accidentally to western Panama (AOU 1998). California, New Mexico, and Arizona are important wintering areas in the United States (James and Ethier 1989).
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Breeding
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
distributed from British Columbia and Manitoba south through the western
half of the United States, Louisiana, Florida, the Carribean islands,
and Mexico. Distribution continues through Central America to western
South America, from Columbia south to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina
Distribution of North American subspecies: Athene cunicularia ssp.
hypugaea is distributed from southern interior British Columbia east to
south-central Manitoba and south to west-central Mexico. Populations in
British Columbia are reintroduced; prior to the 1986 reintroduction,
burrowing owl had not been sighted in British Columbia since 1979. The
range of S. c. ssp. hypugaea once extended to Minnesota and Iowa, but
burrowing owl is probably extirpated from those states .
Athene cunicularia ssp. floridana occurs in Florida and the Bahama
islands. In Florida, the subspecies was formerly restricted to central
and southern portions of the state, but has expanded its range northward
nearly to Georgia .
Regional Distribution in the Western United States
This species can be found in the following regions of the western United States (according to the Bureau of Land Management classification of Physiographic Regions of the western United States):
1 Northern Pacific Border
2 Cascade Mountains
3 Southern Pacific Border
4 Sierra Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
7 Lower Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands
Occurrence in North America
Athene cunicularia is one of the smallest owl species. The owl, which resides primarily on the ground, has long lanky legs, a short tail, and it does not have any ear tufts. The average adult owl is between 8.5-11 inches tall and weighs about 4-6 oz. Unlike other owl species, the female burrowing owl is smaller than the male. The burrowing owl's body is generally brown with speckles of white. The owl's breast is a lighter color brown while its face is encircled in white, with tinges of sandy brown feathers. The owl has wings about the same size as its body, featherless legs, and round yellow eyes ("Interactive" 1999; Davis 2000).
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Length: 24 cm
Weight: 159 grams
No other small owl has such long legs or perches habitually on the ground in open situations. Much smaller than the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), length 24 cm vs. 38 cm, which also has relatively shorter legs.
Chihuahuan Desert Habitat
This taxon is found in the Chihuahuan Desert, which is one of the most biologically diverse arid regions on Earth. This ecoregion extends from within the United States south into Mexico. This desert is sheltered from the influence of other arid regions such as the Sonoran Desert by the large mountain ranges of the Sierra Madres. This isolation has allowed the evolution of many endemic species; most notable is the high number of endemic plants; in fact, there are a total of 653 vertebrate taxa recorded in the Chihuahuan Desert. Moreover, this ecoregion also sustains some of the last extant populations of Mexican Prairie Dog, wild American Bison and Pronghorn Antelope.
The dominant plant species throughout the Chihuahuan Desert is Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata). Depending on diverse factors such as type of soil, altitude, and degree of slope, L. tridentata can occur in association with other species. More generally, an association between L. tridentata, American Tarbush (Flourensia cernua) and Viscid Acacia (Acacia neovernicosa) dominates the northernmost portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. The meridional portion is abundant in Yucca and Opuntia, and the southernmost portion is inhabited by Mexican Fire-barrel Cactus (Ferocactus pilosus) and Mojave Mound Cactus (Echinocereus polyacanthus). Herbaceous elements such as Gypsum Grama (Chondrosum ramosa), Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and Hairy Grama (Chondrosum hirsuta), among others, become dominant near the Sierra Madre Occidental. In western Coahuila State, Lecheguilla Agave (Agave lechuguilla), Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), Purple Prickly-pear (Opuntia macrocentra) and Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus pectinatus) are the dominant vascular plants.
Because of its recent origin, few warm-blooded vertebrates are restricted to the Chihuahuan Desert scrub. However, the Chihuahuan Desert supports a large number of wide-ranging mammals, such as the Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana), Robust Cottontail (Sylvilagus robustus EN); Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus), Grey Fox (Unocyon cineroargentinus), Jaguar (Panthera onca), Collared Peccary or Javelina (Pecari tajacu), Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus auduboni), Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus), Kangaroo Rats (Dipodomys sp.), pocket mice (Perognathus spp.), Woodrats (Neotoma spp.) and Deer Mice (Peromyscus spp). With only 24 individuals recorded in the state of Chihuahua Antilocapra americana is one of the most highly endangered taxa that inhabits this desert. The ecoregion also contains a small wild population of the highly endangered American Bison (Bison bison) and scattered populations of the highly endangered Mexican Prairie Dog (Cynomys mexicanus), as well as the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus).
The Chihuahuan Desert herpetofauna typifies this ecoregion.Several lizard species are centered in the Chihuahuan Desert, and include the Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum); Texas Banded Gecko (Coleonyx brevis), often found under rocks in limestone foothills; Reticulate Gecko (C. reticulatus); Greater Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus); several species of spiny lizards (Scelopoprus spp.); and the Western Marbled Whiptail (Cnemidophorus tigris marmoratus). Two other whiptails, the New Mexico Whiptail (C. neomexicanus) and the Common Checkered Whiptail (C. tesselatus) occur as all-female parthenogenic clone populations in select disturbed habitats.
Representative snakes include the Trans-Pecos Rat Snake (Bogertophis subocularis), Texas Blackhead Snake (Tantilla atriceps), and Sr (Masticophis taeniatus) and Neotropical Whipsnake (M. flagellum lineatus). Endemic turtles include the Bolsón Tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus), Coahuilan Box Turtle (Terrapene coahuila) and several species of softshell turtles. Some reptiles and amphibians restricted to the Madrean sky island habitats include the Ridgenose Rattlesnake (Crotalus willardi), Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (C. pricei), Northern Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis), Yarrow’s Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus jarrovii), and Canyon Spotted Whiptail (Cnemidophorus burti).
There are thirty anuran species occurring in the Chihuahuan Desert: Chiricahua Leopard Frog (Rana chircahuaensis); Red Spotted Toad (Anaxyrus punctatus); American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus); Canyon Treefrog (Hyla arenicolor); Northern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans); Rio Grande Chirping Frog (Eleutherodactylus cystignathoides); Cliff Chirping Frog (Eleutherodactylus marnockii); Spotted Chirping Frog (Eleutherodactylus guttilatus); Tarahumara Barking Frog (Craugastor tarahumaraensis); Mexican Treefrog (Smilisca baudinii); Madrean Treefrog (Hyla eximia); Montezuma Leopard Frog (Lithobates montezumae); Brown's Leopard Frog (Lithobates brownorum); Yavapai Leopard Frog (Lithobates yavapaiensis); Western Barking Frog (Craugastor augusti); Mexican Cascade Frog (Lithobates pustulosus); Lowland Burrowing Frog (Smilisca fodiens); New Mexico Spadefoot (Spea multiplicata); Plains Spadefoot (Spea bombifrons); Pine Toad (Incilius occidentalis); Woodhouse's Toad (Anaxyrus woodhousii); Couch's Spadefoot Toad (Scaphiopus couchii); Plateau Toad (Anaxyrus compactilis); Texas Toad (Anaxyrus speciosus); Dwarf Toad (Incilius canaliferus); Great Plains Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne olivacea); Great Plains Toad (Anaxyrus cognatus); Eastern Green Toad (Anaxyrus debilis); Gulf Coast Toad (Incilius valliceps); and Longfoot Chirping Toad (Eleutherodactylus longipes VU). The sole salamander occurring in the Chihuahuan Desert is the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum).
Common bird species include the Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), Merlin (Falco columbarius), Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), and the rare Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus). Geococcyx californianus), Curve-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostra), Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata), Scott’s Oriole (Icterus parisorum), Black-throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata), Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens), Worthen’s Sparrow (Spizella wortheni), and Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus). In addition, numerous raptors inhabit the Chihuahuan Desert and include the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) and the Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi).
Baja California Desert Habitat
This taxon is found in the Baja California Desert ecoregion, located on most of the western side of the Baja Peninsula, containing varied habitats such as mountains, plains and coastal dunes. This desert is one of the largest and best preserved in Mexico, and due to its isolation, contains a high level of species richness and endemism. A series of ophiolytes (formations of gabrum, ultramafic rocks, and volcanic lava) surround the most prominent orographic feature: The San Andres mountain range. Overall, the climate is arid with variable temperature. The isolated nature of the peninsula, and its proximity to the sea, maintains a measure of humidity, and creates a stable diurnal temperature.
The predominant vegetation associations are composed of xeric scrub, which have been subdivided in diverse categories according to dominant species and the ecological conditions in which they occur. Thick-stemmed trees and shrubs, growing on rocky volcanic soils, cover the highest parts of the mountain ranges. Dominant plant species are Ambrosia camphorata, Common Stork's-bill (Erodium cicutarium), and Astragalus prorifer. The Boojumtree (Fouquieria columnaris) can be also found at elevations up to 1200m. Many species of cacti are present. Dominant species within the Baja California Desert vary with elevation. Epiphytes such as Small Ballmoss (Tillandsia recurvata) and Cudbear (Rocella tinctoria) grow in low elevation, humid areas, and account for a majority of the perennial vegetation. Areas previously submerged under the sea (in the Miocene era) are now covered by highly saline and alkaline-tolerant species, such as Ambrosia magdalenae, El Vizcaino Agave (Agave vizcainoensis), Datilillo (Yucca valida), Pitaya Agria (Stenocereus gummosus), and Porter's Muhly (Muhlenbergia porteri). Dune vegetation includes Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), Barclay's Saltbush (Atriplex barclayana), Rush Milkweed (Asclepias subulata) and Nicolletia trifida.
There are a number of reptilian taxa found in the Baja California Desert including the endemic Baja California Brush Lizard (Urosaurus lahtelai). The Baja California Legless Lizard (Anniella geronimensis EN) is also endemic to the ecoregion, and is restricted to a narrow strip around 87 kilometres (km) long, ranging from about six km north of Colonia Guerrero, southerly to a point south of Punta Baja at the northern edge of Bahia El Rosario. This legless lizard extends to at most four km inland in the Arroyo Socorro, but otherwise found only in the coastal zone; A. geronimensis also occurs on Isla San Gerónimo. Also found here is the San Lucan Leaf-toed Gecko (Phyllodactylus unctus NT), a species not endemic to the ecoregion, but restricted to the southern Baja Peninsula and the Gulf of California islands of Partida Sur, Gallo, Espiritu Santo, Ballena, Gallina and Cerralvo.
There are only a few amphibians found in the ecoregion. Anuran taxa occurring here include: California Chorus Frog (Pseudacris cadaverina); Pacific Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla); and Canyon Treefrog (Hyla arenicolor). Also found here is the Plateau Toad (Anaxyrus compactilis), an endemic to the lower central Mexican Plateau and Baja California Desert; another toad occurring in the ecoregion is the Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas NT). The Channel Islands Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps pacificus) was earlier thought to occur in this ecoregion, but genetic data shows that this taxon is strictly endemic to the Channel Islands of California.
Endemic mammals include San Quintín Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys gravipes CR), and Baja California Rock Squirrel (Spermophilus atricapillus EN). Other mammals that are classified as special status are the Lesser Long-nosed Bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae VU). Some shallow coastal saltwater lagoons protruding into the Baja California Desert along the Pacific Ocean provide key breeding habitat for the Grey Whale (Eschrichtius robustus CR). One of the largest such breeding waters is the remote San Ignacio Lagoon, extending many kilometres inland and rarely exceeding fifteen metres in depth.
Important sites for avian conservation include the Ojo de Liebre lagoon, along the Pacific coast, which is home to millions of overwintering ducks and geese. Bird species in the Baja California Desert include such notable raptor taxa as Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), Southern Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus), Osprey (Pandion haliaeutus), and Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia).
Athene cunicularia lives in burrows of open, dry grasslands, and deserts. They can also be found in airports and golf courses (Davis 2000).
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune ; savanna or grassland
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: Habitat includes open grasslands, especially prairie, plains, and savanna, sometimes other open areas such as vacant lots near human habitation or airports. This owl spends much time on the ground or on low perches such as fence posts or dirt mounds.
Nests are in abandoned burrows, such as those dug by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, foxes, woodchucks, or (in Florida) gopher tortoises, and including badger excavations (see especially Green and Anthony 1989). In Colorado and Okalhoma, burrowing owls are highly associated with and most numerous in prairie dog colonies (Smith and Lomolino 2004, Tipton et al. 2009). Owls may enlarge or modify exisitng burrows. In Florida, burrowing owls may dig their own burrow. Nesting occurs in lava cavities in some areas. See Cavanagh (1990) for an account of unsuccessful above-ground nesting on a lawn at an airport in Florida.
Burrowing owls typically live in colonies, using burrows excavated by
other animal species for cover . Burrows are used for breeding,
nesting, and brooding . When selecting a burrow, the owls prefer
burrows with low, open cover that provide good horizontal visibility
. Burrowing owls are commonly found in plant communities in early
stages of sucession because cover is low . Long-abondoned burrows
are usually not used because the burrow entrance has become overgrown.
Burrows adjacent to burrows occupied by other burrowing owls are
prefered, although burrowing owl pairs have nested alone if other
burrowing owls were not in the area . Burrowing owls often evict
other animal species from desirable burrows .
In the Plains States, burrowing owls use black-tailed prairie dog
(Cynomys ludovicianus) burrows most often [45,56,63], although burrows
of ground squirrels (Spermophilus spp.) are also frequently used .
Deserted black-tailed prairie dog towns become unsuitable as burrowing
owl habitat within 1 to 3 years [9,10]. White-tailed prairie dog (C.
leucurus) burrows are used infrequently because plant cover surrounding
white-tailed prairie dog burrows is usually too high for burrowing owl
requirements . In California and Idaho, burrowing owls primarily use
ground squirrel burrows . Florida burrowing owls occupy raccoon
(Procyon lotor), snake (Serpentes), and gopher tortoise (Gopherus
polyphemus) burrows . Other burrows commonly occupied by burrowing
owl throughout North America include those of badger (Taxidea taxus),
pocket gophers (Geomyidae), fox (Vulpes and Urocyon spp.), and
rattlesnakes (Crotalus spp.) [22,26,63]. Length and depth of the
burrow depends upon the requirements of the species that dug it .
In friable soil, burrowing owls dig their own burrows when suitable ones
are not available [23,63]. In Forida, where burrowing rodents are
scarce, Florida burrowing owls dig their own burrows in sandy soils. The
burrows are about 6.5 to 9 feet long (2-3 m) and less than feet 3.3 feet
(1 m) deep when burrowing owls excavate them .
Burrowing owls use ground cavities other than burrows for cover. On the
Snake River Plain of Idaho, they sometimes use cavities in basalt
outcrops [40,53]. Burrowing owls also use human-constructed cavities
such as culverts. Pipe can be laid down for artifical nests . In
California, hatching success rate of burrowing owl eggs laid in
artificial nests was 55 percent .
Burrowing owls occupy grasslands, shrub steppes, and savannas. They also
occur in other open areas such as agricultural lands, old fields,
extensive forest clearings, airports, golf courses, and spacious
residential zones [1,3,23,50,63,76].
Home range: In central Saskatchewan, home range size for six
radio-tagged males varied from 0.06 to 1.92 square miles (0.14-4.81 sq
km), with an average of 0.96 square mile (2.41 sq km). Diurnal
activities were restricted to within 825 feet (250 m) of the burrow
Associated Plant Communities
Habitat: Rangeland Cover Types
This species is known to occur in association with the following Rangeland Cover Types (as classified by the Society for Range Management, SRM):
More info for the terms: shrub, vine
101 Bluebunch wheatgrass
102 Idaho fescue
103 Green fescue
104 Antelope bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
105 Antelope bitterbrush-Idaho fescue
106 Bluegrass scabland
107 Western juniper/big sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass
201 Blue oak woodland
202 Coast live oak woodland
204 North coastal shrub
205 Coastal sage shrub
214 Coastal prairie
215 Valley grassland
216 Montane meadows
301 Bluebunch wheatgrass-blue grama
302 Bluebunch wheatgrass-Sandberg bluegrass
303 Bluebunch wheatgrass-western wheatgrass
304 Idaho fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass
305 Idaho fescue-Richardson needlegrass
306 Idaho fescue-slender wheatgrass
307 Idaho fescue-threadleaf sedge
308 Idaho fescue-tufted hairgrass
309 Idaho fescue-western wheatgrass
310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama
311 Rough fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass
312 Rough fescue-Idaho fescue
313 Tufted hairgrass-sedge
314 Big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
315 Big sagebrush-Idaho fescue
316 Big sagebrush-rough fescue
317 Bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
318 Bitterbrush-Idaho fescue
319 Bitterbrush-rough fescue
320 Black sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass
321 Black sagebrush-Idaho fescue
322 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany-bluebunch wheatgrass
323 Shrubby cinquefoil-rough fescue
324 Threetip sagebrush-Idaho fescue
401 Basin big sagebrush
402 Mountain big sagebrush
403 Wyoming big sagebrush
505 Grama-tobosa shrub
507 Palo verde-cactus
601 Bluestem prairie
602 Bluestem-prairie sandreed
603 Prairie sandreed-needlegrass
604 Bluestem-grama prairie
605 Sandsage prairie
611 Blue grama-buffalograss
613 Fescue grassland
614 Crested wheatgrass
701 Alkali sacaton-tobosagrass
702 Black grama-alkali sacaton
703 Black grama-sideoats grama
704 Blue grama-western wheatgrass
705 Blue grama-galleta
706 Blue grama-sideoats grama
707 Blue grama-sideoats grama-black grama
710 Bluestem prairie
711 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie
712 Galleta-alkali sacaton
717 Little bluestem-Indiangrass-Texas wintergrass
719 Mesquite-liveoak-seacoast bluestem
720 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (dunes)
721 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (plains)
722 Sand sagebrush-mixed prairie
723 Sea oats
724 Sideoats grama-New Mexico feathergrass-winterfat
725 Vine mesquite-alkali sacaton
Habitat: Plant Associations
This species is known to occur in association with the following plant community types (as classified by Küchler 1964):
More info for the term: shrub
K024 Juniper steppe woodland
K027 Mesquite bosque
K030 California oakwoods
K035 Coastal sagebrush
K043 Paloverde-cactus shrub
K048 California steppe
K049 Tule marshes
K053 Grama-galleta steppe
K054 Grama-tobosa prairie
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe
K057 Galleta-three-awn shrubsteppe
K058 Grama-tobosa shrubsteppe
K063 Foothills prairie
K069 Bluestem-grama prairie
K070 Sandsage-bluestem prairie
K074 Bluestem prairie
K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie
K076 Blackland prairie
K077 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie
K079 Palmetto prairie
K088 Fayette prairie
This species is known to occur in the following ecosystem types (as named by the U.S. Forest Service in their Forest and Range Ecosystem [FRES] Type classification):
FRES28 Western hardwoods
FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES32 Texas savanna
FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe
FRES34 Chaparral-mountain shrub
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES37 Mountain meadows
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES40 Desert grasslands
FRES41 Wet grasslands
FRES42 Annual grasslands
Habitat: Cover Types
This species is known to occur in association with the following cover types (as classified by the Society of American Foresters):
250 Blue oak-foothills pine
255 California coast live oak
Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Burrowing owls are migratory in the northern portion of the range (though some birds may overwinter in north). Some U.S./Canadian breeders winter in Mexico and possibly in Central America (James and Ethier 1989). Canadian breeders are believed to winter south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants arrive in the northern breeding range in April-May. The Florida population apparently is sedentary, as is the breeding population in southern California.
Home range in Saskatchewan: 0.14-4.81 sq km; 95% of all movements within 600 m of nest burrow (Haug and Oliphant 1990). Significantly smaller home ranges were reported in Saskatchewan (0.08-0.49, average 0.35 square kilometers) during period of small mammal superabundance (Sissons et al. 1998, Wellicome 1998). Dispersing young use satellite burrows in the vicinity of their natal burrows for about two months after hatching before departing the natal area (King and Belthoff 2001).
The diet of the burrowing owl consists of insects, small frogs, lizards, and rodents. The owl will eat beetles, crickets, moths, kangaroo rats, and snails. It eats different prey depending on availability in the habitat and the time of year. The owl is a keen hunter always on the look out for prey, during the day or night, and always keeping a supply of food in its burrow (Snyder 2000; "Interactive" 1999).
Comments: Diet includes primarily large insects (especially in warmer months) and rodents, sometimes birds and amphibians. In the Dominican Republic, prey composition by number of items was 53.3% invertebrates, 28.3% birds, 14.9% reptiles, 2.5% amphibians, and 1.0% mammals (Wiley 1998).
prairie dog mounds or other high spots on the ground, and from
fenceposts or other elevated perches. Prey is either run down on foot
or caught by hovering and swooping . Arthropods, mainly insects,
form the majority of the burrowing owl diet. An overall assessment of
the burrowing diet in western North America, calculated from 3,564 prey
items, included 90.0 percent invertebrates (mostly insects), 6.9 percent
mammals (mostly rodents), 2.0 percent herptiles, and 0.3 percent birds
. Young prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.), ground squirrels, pocket
gophers, voles (Microtus spp.), mice (Heteromyidae, Muridae, and
Zapodidiae), young cottontails (Sylvilagus spp.), and young jackrabbits
(Lepus spp.) are common mammalian prey. Grasshoppers (Acrididae),
Jerusalem crickets (Gryllacrididae), and beetles (Coleoptera) are the
most common arthropod prey, although other arthropod taxa are taken as
available [22,24,45,63]. Herptiles are a large component of the Florida
burrowing owl's diet .
Seasonal variation: In Oklahoma, vertebrates comprised 85 percent of
the burrowing owl winter diet, while arthropods comprised almost 100
percent of the summer diet . A study of the spring and summer diets
of burrowing owl on the shortgrass prairie of Colorado showed that most
rodents were taken in April. Most Jerusalem crickets were taken June,
most grasshoppers in July, and most dung beetles (Scarabaeinae) in
August. Ground beetles (Carabidae) were taken in quantity throughout
spring and summer .
nestlings [4,63]. Hawks (Accipiter and Buteo spp.), falcons (Falco
spp.), great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), coyote (Canis latrans),
domestic dog (C. domesticus), badger, skunks (Spilogale, Mephitis, and
Conepatus spp.), weasels (Mustela spp.), and bobcat (Lynx rufus) prey on
both adult and nestling burrowing owls .
Known prey organisms
Based on studies in:
USA: California, Cabrillo Point (Grassland)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
- L. D. Harris and L. Paur, A quantitative food web analysis of a shortgrass community, Technical Report No. 154, Grassland Biome. U.S. International Biological Program (1972), from p. 17.
- Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. 2006. The Animal Diversity Web (online). Accessed February 16, 2011 at http://animaldiversity.org. http://www.animaldiversity.org
Based on studies in:
USA: California, Cabrillo Point (Grassland)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
- L. D. Harris and L. Paur, A quantitative food web analysis of a shortgrass community, Technical Report No. 154, Grassland Biome. U.S. International Biological Program (1972), from p. 17.
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 to >300
Comments: The number of distinct breeding occurrences (subpopulations) has not been determined using standardized criteria, but this owl nests in a large number of locations across a wide range..
Comments: Rich et al. (2004) estimated the global population at 2,000,000, with 31 percent of those in the United States and Canada (fewer than 2,000 pairs in Canada).
Reported densities: 8 pairs/sq km (California), 3.5-6 ha per pair in North Dakota, 13-16 ha/pair in Saskatchewan.
Territory defense mainly limited to immediate vicinity of nest burrow; individuals may share a common foraging area.
Badgers play an important role in burrowing owl nesting ecology in northern Oregon; they provide nest burrows and are a major predator (Green and Anthony 1989).
Habitat-related Fire Effects
Fire affects burrowing owl in two ways: by altering vegetation and by
altering their prey base .
Fire effects on vegetation: Wright and Bailey  indentified three
major fire-dependent plant associations (grassland, semidesert
grass-shrub, and sagebrush-grass) in which burrowing owl occur.
Frequent fire can maintain or improve burrowing owl habitats by reducing
plant height and cover around burrows and by controlling woody plant
invasion. For example, 3 months following a May prescribed fire on the
Nebraska sandhills prairie, where burrowing owl occur, vegetative cover
on burned sites averaged 16 percent less than on adjacent unburned sites
. One year after a May 1965 wildfire on Nebraska sandhills prairie,
vegetative growth was 53 to 91 percent greater on unburned than on
burned sites .
Fire in grasslands has been shown to reduce encroachment of woody shrubs
and trees . Mixed-grass prairie of South Dakota, for example, has
become invaded by ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) in the absence of
fire; it is estimated that in the Black Hills, 50 percent of
presettlement prairie has converted to ponderosa pine woodland .
Fire effects on prey: Periodic fire in grasslands probably increases
prey diversity for raptors including burrowing owl, and may increase
overall prey density . Rodent populations in grasslands usually show
an initial drop after fire; loss of cover makes rodents more vulnerable
to predators such as burrowing owl . After a 1- to 3-year reduction
in prey, rodent numers usually match or exceed prefire levels .
Deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) numbers have returned to prefire
levels in the first postfire growing season . Ground squirrels, an
important burrowing owl prey, also increase in number after fire [5,21].
Since arthropods form the majority of the burrowing owl's diet, fire
effects on burrowing owl's arthropod prey are an important management
consideration. Because beetles, grasshoppers, and crickets form the
majority of the burrowing owl's arthropod diet, they are discussed here.
Beetles are a diverse order, and the effects of fire on beetles are
variable. Generally, however, beetle populations in grassland habitats
recover quickly from fire. After a March wildfire on an Illinois
prairie, beetle numbers initially dropped 15 percent, but nearly
equalled beetle numbers on an adjacent unburned prairie within a month.
Rove beetle (Aleocharinae) numbers on burned sites, however, stayed
below those on adjacent unburned prairie throughout the month of the
study . On Minnesota tallgrass prairie, Tester and Marshall 
recorded an increase in beetles following fire. On the Konza Prairie
Research Natural Area of Kansas, scarab beetle (Scarabaeideae) grub
numbers were significantly (p less than 0.05) greater on annually burned prairie
than on unburned prairie . (Data for other beetle families were not
Most grasshopper species increase after spring fire due to increased
nutritional quality of new grasses [39,52,60]. On native tallgrass
prairie in Kansas, grasshopper numbers were highest after early spring
prescribed burning, followed by mid-spring burning; numbers were lowest
on late-spring burned sites . In a review of fire effects on
insects, Warren and others  reported that grasshoppers and crickets
(Orthoptera) generally increase after fire in any season; however, "hot"
grass fires that occur before Orthoptera have developed wings may reduce
their numbers. Jerusalem crickets are a key element in the diet of
burrowing owl in many areas. Unlike most Orthoptera, they are wingless
even as adults. They habitually burrow or hide under rocks, where they
are probably protected from fire. After rangeland fire in northern
Utah, Jersalem crickets occurred exclusively on burned areas .
Florida burrowing owl: Periodic fire is important in keeping the sandy
soils open for burrowing. It also maintains the early successional
stages that burrowing owl and most of their herptile and mammal prey
Timing of Major Life History Events
they line with cow, horse, or bison (Bison bison) dung . In eastern
Colorado, burrowing owls lay eggs in May . The female does all
incubation and brooding . Clutch size is large, from 6 to 11 eggs
, with an average of 6.5 eggs . Eggs are laid at intervals of
24 to 72 hours. Incubation period is 27 to 30 days and begins when the
first egg is laid, resulting in a multi-aged brood . Owlets are
born partially covered with down and with eyes closed. Eyes open at 5
days of age . Owlets move among nest burrows when 10 days old .
They fly well by 6 weeks of age, and fledge when about 44 days old .
At Davis, California, a DNA fingerprinting study of burrowing owl showed
that 37 percent of adult owls were raising owlets other than their
biological offspring. Owlet movement and polygamy accounted for some of
the discrepancy; intraspecific brood parasitism may also be a factor
Migration: Burrowing owls are migratory, but little is known of their
migration routes and wintering areas. The majority of burrowing owls
that breed in Canada and the northern United States are thought to
migrate south during September and October and north during March and
April. Burrowing owls migrating to Saskatchewan arrive in early May
. Banding studies suggest that Canadian burrowing owls migrate
further south than burrowing owls in the United States . Christmas
birds counts show California as the most important American state for
wintering burrowing owls, followed by New Mexico, Florida, Arizona, and
Texas, respectively . Florida, the Southwest, and southern
California have year-round burrowing owl residents as well as winter
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Comments: Activity is primarily nocturnal in winter in the north, diurnal and crepuscular in summer; burrowing owls usually can be observed in daytime in Florida and in the southern part of the winter range (Evans 1982). In Saskatchewan, peak foraging activity occurred between 2030 and 0630 h (Haug and Oliphant 1990).
Status: wild: 11 (high) years.
Status: wild: 108 months.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Burrowing owls will nest underground, either by digging its own burrow or more frequently by taking over a burrow dug by other mammals such as prairie dogs and pocket gophers. The owl lines its den with grass and roots and in April the female owl will lay about 7-9 round white eggs. After about four weeks of incubation, the eggs will hatch and the mother and father will share the responsibility of caring for the young. The young owlets will remain in their nest for about 40 days before leaving and venturing out on their own. While owlets are still in their nest, they have the capability of mimicking a rattlesnake to scare away predators (Davis 2000).
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Average time to hatching: 28 days.
Average eggs per season: 6.
Clutch size averages 6-7. Incubation, by female, lasts 27-30 days. Male provides food during incubation and early nestling stages. Young run and forage at 4 weeks, and attain sustained flight at 6 weeks. Nesting efforts average 3-5 fledglings per brood. Individuals first breed at 1 year (some may not) and generally produce 1 brood/year (double brooding documented in Florida).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Athene cunicularia
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
-- end --
Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Athene cunicularia
Public Records: 8
Specimens with Barcodes: 15
Species With Barcodes: 1
Burrowing owl populations are declining. An insecticide used in farming was recently banned in Canada because of the harmful effects the chemical has on burrowing owls. A reintroduction program started in 1985 is trying to establish a population of these owls in Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota (Snyder 2000).
US Migratory Bird Act: protected
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: appendix ii
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N2B - Imperiled
Rounded National Status Rank: N4B,N4N : N4B: Apparently Secure - Breeding, N4N: Apparently Secure - Nonbreeding
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Widespread distribution in North America; relatively common in appropriate habitat in some areas; trend in North America relatively stable, but habitat alteration and other factors are causing population declines in some areas.
Iowa and as a species of special concern in California, Oregon,
Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah,
Oklahoma, and Florida [34,46].
Canadian Status: Burrowing owl is listed as threatened in Alberta,
British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan .
Other: Burrowing owl is classified as a species of special concern on
the Audubon Society's Blue List .
Global Short Term Trend: Relatively stable (=10% change)
Comments: Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data for North America indicate a relatively stable or increasing trend for the period 1999-2009 (average increase of 1.6% per year). This trend characterized the global trend and the trend in the United States. Abundance was highest in the shortgrass prairie region, where the increase averaged 2.3% per years in 1999-2009. In Canada, BBS data indicate a decline averaging 7.6% per year for the period 1999-2009.
Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data for the United States indicate a tendency toward increased numbers of owls per party-hour since 2000 (compared to the 1980s and 1990s).
Declined in Canada from the mid-1970s through at least the early 1990s (Kirk et al. 1995); declined 50% or more in some areas (Dundas and Jensen 1995). Loss of habitat was substantial between 1976 and 1986, has slowed considerably since then, but declines have continued; if present trends continue, extirpation from Manitoba will occur within a few years and extirpation from all of Canada may occur within a few decades (Wellicome and Haug, 1995 COSEWIC report).
In Texas, no significant changes were found in the mean number of burrowing owls during the breeding season for the period 1966-1999, although the trend was downward (McIntyre 2004). A statistically significant decline in overwintering owls (particularly since the 1970s) in Texas through 2001 (McIntyre 2004) mirrored a pattern seen in California (Sheffield 1997). Texas represents the area of highest abundance of overwintering burrowing owls in the United States, so the decline in winter owl abundance is of concern (McIntyre 2004). However, winter abundance in Texas apparently increased somewhat in Texas subsequent to 2001, in accorance with the national trend (CBC data).
Global Long Term Trend: Decline of 50-90%
Comments: Over the long term, Breeding Bird Survey data indicate a decline from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, then a relatively stable trend. A very large decline undoubtedly occurred before the BBS was initiated in the 1960s. Christmas Bird Count data indicate a relatively stable North American population since the mid-1950s.
Degree of Threat: Medium
Comments: Primary threat is habitat loss (e.g., due to intensive agriculture), habitat degradation (e.g., via control of burrowing mammals), and habitat fragmentation (Dundas and Jensen 1995). In the West, eradication of prairie dogs has reduced owl populations (Evans 1982), as has conversion of rangeland to irrigated agricultural land and, in some areas, loss of habitat to suburbanization. Other threats include excessive mortality due to predation (e.g., dogs cats, and food-subsidized populations of native predators), contaminants, and unknown factors (Haug and Didiuk 1991; see also 1979 COSEWIC report by Wedgwood and 1995 COSEWIC report by Wellicome and Haug).
Burrowing owl declines in Washington (based on Breeding Bird Survey data for 1968-2005) are probably due to loss of native grassland and shrub-steppe and eradication of burrowing mammals such as ground squirrels (Spermophilus spp.), yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), and American badgers (Taxidea taxus) (Conway and Pardieck 2006).
On Santa Barbara Island, California, heavy predation by barn owls during a time of small mammal scarcity resulted in extirpation of the fall-winter resident population of burrowing owls (Drost and McCluskey, Oecologia 92:301).
Management Requirements: Artificial nest burrows have been used successfully (Collins and Landry 1977).
May benefit from periodic burning of desert grasslands (see Dodd 1988).
See Harris and Feeney (1990) for information on the successful relocation of owls from a construction site to an enhanced site on an unused portion of a municipal golf course in central California. However, site fidelity may interfere with translocation efforts (see J. Raptor Research, vol. 27).
See Dechant et al. (2003) for effects of grassland management practices on burrowing owls. See Green and Anthony (J. Raptor Research, vol. 27) for a discussion of management in the Columbia Basin.
Human activity in nesting areas should be restricted or prohibited during the incubation period.
Global Protection: Many to very many (13 to >40) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Comments: This species is protected to some degree in various national, state, and provincial preserves.
Needs: Protect large areas with ample populations of burrowing mammals such as prairie dogs or ground squirrels.
results in loss of burrows, loss of foraging habitat, and creation of
suboptimal nesting habitat. It also increases vulnerability to
predation  and may reduce the chances of unpaired owls to find mates
. Loss of habitat has been cited as factor of decline in the Bay
Area and Central Valley of California [13,23] and elsewhere. Breeding
Bird Survey data show that in the Great Plains, burrowing owl
populations declined an average of 0.71 percent per year from 1966 to
Programs to destroy prairie dogs and other burrowing rodents have
greatly reduced burrowing owl populations by reducing the amount of prey
and burrows available [4,23,28,63]. Poisons used to destroy rodents
probably have a direct effect on burrowing owls: at least one
rodenticide (carbamate) has been shown to lower burrowing owl
reproduction and survival when sprayed over nest burrows . The
effects of consuming poisoned prey on burrowing owl are not well known
. However, weight of breeding burrowing owl in pastures where
strychnine-coated grain was used to control ground squirrels was
significantly lower than on control pastures, suggesting either a
sublethal effect or less available food .
Reintroduction: Burrowing owls were reintroduced in British Columbia in
1986. As of 1993, 91 fledglings had been produced. No returns of
burrowing owl reintroduced in Manitoba or Minnesota have been recorded
Florida burrowing owl: Human activities have had a beneficial effect on
Florida burrowing owl. Mowing, cattle grazing , and wetland
drainage have increased the subspecies' range. Residential and
industrial areas currently support the largest populations .
Grazing effects: Moderate grazing can benefit burrowing owl by keeping
vegetation around burrows short . In Florida, cattle often break
through the sandy soils and damage burrows, but overall, cattle grazing
has benefitted the Florida burrowing owl . Overstocking can harm
burrowing owl, however. Burrowing owl have become extirpated from some
islands of Tierra del Fuego by domestic sheep trampling their burrows
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Because of the human destruction of the burrowing owl's habitat, the owl has been decreasing in number and therefore is not abundant enough to be used for any human advantage (Snyder 2000)
The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) is a small, long-legged owl found throughout open landscapes of North and South America. Burrowing owls can be found in grasslands, rangelands, agricultural areas, deserts, or any other open dry area with low vegetation. They nest and roost in burrows, such as those excavated by prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.). Unlike most owls, Burrowing Owls are often active during the day, although they tend to avoid the midday heat. But like many other kinds of owls, burrowing owls do most of their hunting from dusk until dawn, when they can use their night vision and hearing to their advantage. Living in open grasslands as opposed to the forest, the burrowing owl has developed longer legs, which enables it to sprint as well as fly when hunting.
Burrowing owls have bright eyes; their beaks can be dark yellow or gray depending on the subspecies. They lack ear tufts and have a flattened facial disc. The owls have prominent white eyebrows and a white "chin" patch which they expand and display during certain behaviors, such as a bobbing of the head when agitated.
Adults have brown heads and wings with white spotting. The chest and abdomen are white with variable brown spotting or barring, also depending on the subspecies. Juvenile owls are similar in appearance, but they lack most of the white spotting above and brown barring below. The juveniles have a buff bar across the upper wing and their breast may be buff-colored rather than white. Burrowing owls of all ages have grayish legs longer than other owls.
Males and females are similar in size and appearance, and display little sexual dimorphism. Females tend to be heavier, but males tend to have longer linear measurements (wing length, tail length, etc.). Adult males appear lighter in color than females because they spend more time outside the burrow during daylight, and their feathers become "sun-bleached". The burrowing owl measures 19–28 cm (7.5–11.0 in) long, spans 50.8–61 cm (20.0–24.0 in) across the wings and weighs 140–240 g (4.9–8.5 oz). As a size comparison, an average adult is slightly larger than an American robin (Turdus migratorius).
Taxonomy and systematics
The burrowing owl is sometimes classified in the monotypic genus Speotyto. This is based on an overall different morphology and karyotype. On the other hand, osteology and DNA sequence data suggests that the burrowing owl is a terrestrial member of the Athene little owls, and it is today placed in that genus by most authorities.
A considerable number of subspecies have been described, but they differ little in appearance and the taxonomy of several needs to be validated. Most subspecies are found in/near the Andes and in the Antilles. Only A. c. hypugaea and A. c. floridana are found in the United States. Although distinct from each other, the relationship of the Floridian subspecies to (and its distinctness from) the Caribbean birds is not quite clear:
- A. c. cunicularia (Molina, 1782): Southern burrowing owl – Lowlands of S Bolivia and S Brazil south to Tierra del Fuego. Probably includes partridgei.
- A. c. grallaria (Temminck, 1822): Brazilian burrowing owl – Central and E Brazil.
- A. c. hypugaea (Bonaparte, 1825): Northern (or western) burrowing owl – S Canada through Great Plains south to Central America.
- A. c. floridana (Ridgway, 1874): Florida burrowing owl – Florida and Bahamas (Caribbean).
- A. c. guadeloupensis (Ridgway, 1874): Guadeloupe burrowing owl – Formerly Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante Islands; extinct (c.1890).
- A. c. amaura (Lawrence, 1878): Antiguan burrowing owl – Formerly Antigua, Saint Kitts, and Nevis Islands; extinct (c.1905).
- A. c. troglodytes (Wetmore & Swales, 1886): Hispaniolan burrowing owl – Hispaniola, Gonâve Island, and Beata Island.
- A. c. rostrata (C. H. Townsend, 1890): Revillagigedo burrowing owl – Isla Clarión, Revillagigedo Islands.
- A. c. nanodes (Berlepsch & Stolzmann, 1892): Southwest Peruvian burrowing owl – SW Peru. Might include intermedia.
- A. c. brachyptera (Richmond, 1896): Margarita burrowing owl – Isla Margarita. Might include apurensis.
- A. c. tolimae (Stone, 1899): West Colombian burrowing owl – W Colombia. Might include carrikeri.
- A. c. juninensis (Berlepsch & Stolzmann, 1902): South Andean burrowing owl – Andes from Central Peru to NW Argentina. Might include punensis.
- A. c. punensis (Chapman, 1914): Puna burrowing owl – Altiplano region around Peruvian-Ecuadorian border. Doubtfully distinct from juninensis.
- A. c. arubensis (Cory, 1915): Aruba burrowing owl – Aruba.
- A. c. intermedia (Cory, 1915): West Peruvian burrowing owl – W Peru. Doubtfully distinct from nanodes.
- A. c. minor (Cory, 1918): Guyanan burrowing owl – S Guyana and Roraima region.
- A. c. carrikeri (Stone, 1922): East Colombian burrowing owl – E Colombia. Doubtfully distinct from tolimae.
- A. c. pichinchae (Boetticher, 1929): West Ecuadorean burrowing owl – W Ecuador.
- A. c. boliviana (L. Kelso, 1939): Bolivian burrowing owl – Bolivian altiplano.
- A. c. apurensis (Gilliard, 1940): Venezuelan burrowing owl – NW Venezuela. Doubtfully distinct from brachyptera.
- A. c. partridgei (Olrog, 1976): Corrientes burrowing owl – Corrientes Province, Argentina. Probably not distinct from cunicularia.
- A. c. guantanamensis (Garrido, 2001): Cuban burrowing owl – Cuba and Isla de la Juventud.
A paleosubspecies, A. c. providentiae, has been described from fossil remains from the Pleistocene of the Bahamas. How these birds relate to the extant A. c. floridana – that is, whether they were among the ancestors of that subspecies, or whether they represented a more distant lineage that completely disappeared later – is unknown.
In addition, prehistoric fossils of similar owls have been recovered from many islands in the Caribbean (Barbuda, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Mona Island, and Puerto Rico). These birds became extinct towards the end of the Pleistocene, probably because of ecological and sea level changes at the end of the last ice age rather than human activity. These fossil owls differed in size from present-day burrowing owls, and their relationship to the modern taxon has not been resolved.
Florida burrowing owl (A. c. floridana)
Southern burrowing owl (A. c. cunicularia)
Range and ecology
Before European colonization, burrowing owls probably inhabited every suitable area of the New World, but in North America they have experienced some restrictions in distribution since. In parts of South America they are expanding their range with deforestation. Burrowing owls are most common in the Rocky Mountains Arsenal in several counties in Colorado and it is reported that their population is threatened.
They range from the southern portions of the western Canadian provinces through southern Mexico and western Central America. They are also found in Florida and many Caribbean islands. In South America, they are patchy in the northwest and through the Andes, but widely distributed from southern Brazil to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Burrowing owls are year-round residents in most of their range. Birds that breed in Canada and the northern USA usually migrate south to Mexico and southern USA during winter months.
This species can live for at least 9 years in the wild and over 10 years in captivity. They are often killed by vehicles when crossing roads, and have many natural enemies, including badgers, coyotes, and snakes. They are also killed by both feral and domestic cats and dogs. Two birds studied in the Parque Nacional de La Macarena of Colombia were free of blood parasites.
Burrowing owls often nest and roost in the burrows made by ground squirrels, a strategy also used by rattlesnakes. When threatened the owl retreats to the burrow and produces rattling and hissing sounds similar to that of a rattlesnake. The behavior is suggested to be an example of acoustic Batesian mimicry and has been observed to be an effective strategy against animals that that are familiar with dangers posed by rattlesnakes.
Food and feeding
When hunting, they wait on a perch until they spot prey. Then, they swoop down on prey or fly up to catch insects in flight. Sometimes, they chase prey on foot across the ground. The highly variable diet includes invertebrates and small vertebrates, which make up roughly one-third and two-thirds of the diet, respectively. Burrowing owls mainly eat large insects and small rodents. Although burrowing owls often live close to ground squirrels (Marmotini), they rarely prey upon them.
Rodent prey is usually dominated by locally superabundant species, like the delicate vesper mouse (Calomys tener) in southern Brazil. Among squamates and amphibians, small lizards like the tropical house gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia), and frogs and toads predominate. Generally, most vertebrate prey is in the weight class of several grams per individual. The largest prey are usually birds, such as eared doves (Zenaida auriculata) which may weigh almost as much as a burrowing owl. When food stressed or nesting in close proximity, adult burrowing owls will sometimes capture owlets from other nests to cannibalize or feed to their own young.
Regarding invertebrates, the burrowing owl seems less of a generalist. It is extremely fond of termites such as Termitidae, and Orthoptera such as Conocephalinae and Copiphorinae katydids, Jerusalem crickets (Stenopelmatidae) and true crickets (Gryllidae). Bothynus and Dichotomius anaglypticus scarab beetles (Scarabaeidae) were eaten far more often than even closely related species by many burrowing owls across central São Paulo (Brazil). Similarly, it was noted that among scorpions Bothriuridae were much preferred, among spiders Lycosidae (wolf spiders), and among millipedes (Diplopoda) certain Diplocheta. Small ground beetles (Carabidae) are eaten in quantity, while larger ones are much less popular as burrowing owl food, perhaps due to the vigorous defense the large species can put up. Burrowing owls are also known to place the fecal matter of large herbivorous mammals around the outside of their burrows to attract dung beetles which are used to provide a steady source of food for the owls.
Unlike other owls, they also eat fruits and seeds, especially the fruit of tasajillo (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) and other prickly pear and cholla cacti. On Clarion Island, where mammalian prey is lacking, they feed essentially on crickets and prickly pear fruit, adding Clarión wrens (Troglodytes tanneri) and young mourning doves (Zenaida macroura clarionensis) on occasion.
The nesting season begins in late March or April in North America. Burrowing owls usually only have one mate but occasionally a male will have two mates. Pairs of owls will sometimes nest in loose colonies. Their typical breeding habitat is open grassland or prairie, but they can occasionally adapt to other open areas like airports, golf courses, and agricultural fields. Burrowing owls are slightly tolerant of human presence, often nesting near roads, farms, homes, and regularly maintained irrigation canals.
The owls nest in an underground burrow, hence the name burrowing owl. If burrows are unavailable and the soil is not hard or rocky, the owls may excavate their own. Burrowing owls will also nest in shallow, underground, man-made structures that have easy access to the surface.
During the nesting season, burrowing owls will collect a wide variety of materials to line their nest, some of which are left around the entrance to the burrow. The most common material is mammal dung, usually from cattle. At one time it was thought that the dung helped to mask the scent of the juvenile owls, but researchers now believe the dung helps to control the microclimate inside the burrow and to attract insects, which the owls may eat.
The female will lay an egg every 1 or 2 days until she has completed a clutch, which can consist of 4–12 eggs (usually 9). She will then incubate the eggs for three to four weeks while the male brings her food. After the eggs hatch, both parents will feed the chicks. Four weeks after hatching, the chicks can make short flights and begin leaving the nest burrow. The parents will still help feed the chicks for 1 to 3 months. While most of the eggs will hatch, only 4–5 chicks usually survive to leave the nest.
Site fidelity rates appear to vary among populations. In some locations, owls will frequently reuse a nest several years in a row. Owls in migratory northern populations are less likely to return to the same burrow every year. Also, as with many other birds, the female owls are more likely to disperse to a different site than are male owls.
Status and conservation
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 threatened 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. In regions bordering the Amazon Rainforest they are spreading with deforestation. It is therefore listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. 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.
The major reasons for declining populations in North America are control programs for prairie dogs and loss of habitat. Burrowing owls readily inhabit some anthropogenic landscapes, such as airport grasslands or golf courses, and are known to take advantage of artificial nest sites (plastic burrows with tubing for the entrance) and perches. Genetic analysis of the two North American subspecies indicates that inbreeding is not a problem within those populations.
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. The preparations need to start several months prior to the anticipated disturbance with observing the owl colony and noting especially their local movements and site preferences. After choosing a location nearby that has suitable ground and provides good burrowing owl breeding habitat, this new site is enhanced by adding burrows, perches, etc. Once the owls have accustomed to the changes and are found to be interested in the location – if possible, this should be at the onset of spring, before the breeding season starts – they are prevented from entering the old burrows. A simple one-way trapdoor design has been described that is placed over the burrow for this purpose. If everything has been correctly prepared, the owl colony will move over to the new site in the course of a few nights at most. It will need to be monitored occasionally for the following months or until the major human construction nearby has ended.
In popular culture
- Carl Hiaasen's young adult novel Hoot (2002) is about a group of school children trying to stop the planned construction of a pancake house that would go hand in hand with the destruction of burrowing owl habitat in a small town in Florida. Live burrowing owls were featured in the New Line Cinema and Walden Media movie adaptation.
- A burrowing owl named Digger features in the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series by Kathryn Lasky. He is a major character in the series. There are several less prominent burrowing owls in the series. Digger is also featured in the 2011 film based on the series.
- In the 2011 film Rango a group of burrowing owls is depicted as a band of Mariachi players.
- A burrowing owl is seen in the 2003 Pixar animated short Boundin' jumping up and down from its burrow.
- A burrowing owl named Madame Moonshine appears in the Hank the Cowdog series by John Erickson. Madame Moonshine is described as "a witchy little owl", lives in a cave with her guardian rattlesnake Timothy, and has helped Hank out of several difficulties.
- The burrowing owl is the official mascot for the intercollegiate athletic teams of Florida Atlantic University, as the campus is a National Audubon Society designated burrowing owl sanctuary. (The sports teams, though, simply go by "Owls".)
- BirdLife International (2012). "Athene cunicularia". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Lewis, D.P. (2005). "Burrowing Owl – Athene cunicularia". OwlPages.com. Owl Species ID: 220.040.000. Retrieved 24 April 2005.
- "Burrowing Owl". All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
- "All about Burrowing Owls". Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC.
- Holt, D.W.; Berkley, R.; Deppe, C.; Enríquez Rocha, P.L.; Petersen, J.L.; Rangel Salazar, J.L.; Segars, K.P.; Wood, K.L. (1999). del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J., eds. 155. Burrowing Owl. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 5: Barn-owls to Hummingbirds (Barcelona: Lynx Edicions). pp. 227–228, plate 17. ISBN 84-87334-25-3.
- Korfanta, N.M.; McDonald, D.B.; Glenn, T.C. (2005). "Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) population genetics: A comparison of North American forms and migratory habits". Auk 122 (2): 464–478. doi:10.1642/0004-8038(2005)122[0464:BOACPG]2.0.CO;2. JSTOR 4090439.
- Gomes, F.B.R.; Mello Barreiros, M.H.; Krempel Santana, T.B. (2013). "Novos registros da expansão geográfica de Athene cunicularia na Amazônia central com especial referência as atividades humanas" [New records of the geographical expansion of Athene cunicularia in central Amazonia with particular reference to human activities]. Atualidades Ornitológica s (in Portuguese) 172: 8.
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- Fig. 1 in Motta-Junior (2006) is misleading: it shows the average weight of both vertebrate and invertebrate components. Compare Tyto alba, which feeds almost exclusively on the same sort of rodents and other small vertebrates (but not invertebrates) as A. cunicularia.
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- "Species Profile - Burrowing Owl". Species at Risk Public Registry. Environment Canada. Retrieved 8 May 2006.
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- Haug, E.A.; Milsap, B.A.; Martell, M.S. (1993). Poole, A., ed. "Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia)". The Birds of North America Online. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. doi:10.2173/bna.61. Retrieved 26 December 2006. (subscription required (. ))
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Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Placed in genus Athene by AOU (1997). Karyotypic studies suggest separate generic status as Speotyto (AOU 1991). Sibley and Monroe (1990) cited DNA-DNA hybridization evidence in asserting that Speotyto cunicularia is not closely related to owls of the genus Athene.
cunicularia (Molina). Subspecies of burrowing owl occurring in the United
States and Canada are [2,58]:
A. c. hypugaea burrowing owl, western burrowing owl, Colorado burrowing owl
A. c. floridana Florida burrowing owl