When you first encounter Burrowing Owls, it’s hard not to be hypnotized by those large, round, bright yellow eyes. Their stare is intense and almost a little disconcerting, but they’re actually among the more approachable owl species. They may not be quite as fluffy as the baby owls we covered previously, but we think you’ll find them just as enchanting.
Found all through both North and South America, the Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia lives mostly in dry, open areas like deserts and grasslands. Unlike most owl species – and as the name suggests – they live in burrows rather than trees or other high up places. Sadly, they are considered threatened, endangered or else a species of special concern in many regions.
Here we see a Burrowing Owl mother with her young owlet. Burrowing Owls usually lay around nine eggs a season – although they can lay more, or as few as four – and take a day or two between each one. Both parents feed the baby owls until they’re ready to leave the nest, which can take up to three months after hatching. However, even before they’re fully independent, the young make short test flights away from the burrow.
Burrowing Owls feed on a large selection of prey, but their main sources of protein are insects and small rodents – like the unfortunate creature in this photograph. The owls rely on various hunting methods, including pursuing their targets on the ground, dropping down on them from the air and, in the case of flying prey, scooping them up in midair.
The piercing yellow eyes of the Burrowing Owl are made even more striking by the black “eyeliner” and white eyebrows that surround them. These striking eyes, their unusual habit of being active during the day and the Burrowing Owl’s lack of fear around humans makes it an easy species to recognize.
This lovely specimen was snapped in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. According to photographer Nan Moore, Burrowing Owls in the region live on voles and mice in winter. Burrowing Owls in Canada and the northern parts of the US usually move further south during the colder months.
With its wings spread out and feathers puffed up, this Burrowing Owl looks like it’s ready to attack. Burrowing Owls have small bodies that are only 8.5 to 11 inches long and have wingspans of 20 to 24 inches. They are among the smallest species of owls in the US – but with surprisingly long legs.
“This little one was grabbing anything he could and pulling, including his mother’s foot. I think he was hungry! He’s decided this weed might taste good,” says photographer Lynne Ingram of this little fuzzball. The chick certainly looks determined. We hope one of its parents brought it something better to eat.
This owl has its eye on you – so don’t even think about making any trouble. Burrowing Owls like this one frequently stand on one leg while they’re on the lookout. They often perch on piles of dirt, telegraph poles or fence posts and scan the area for unsuspecting prey.
Something has definitely attracted the interest of these two youngsters. We can tell that they’re juveniles from their coloring: brown head, wings and back, with a whitish front. During their first summer, they will take on the plumage of adult birds: sandy colored head, back and top of the wings, with a mottled chest and belly, and a noticeable light chin stripe.
Here’s a closer look at the adult Burrowing Owl plumage. According to photographer Michael Bruce, this is a female – and females are normally a darker color than their male counterparts.
Burrowing Owls can live for a minimum of nine years in the wild and at least 10 in captivity. Wild members of the species have a range of natural predators, such as badgers, ferrets, snakes, other birds of prey, and even bigger owl species.
This owl was snapped in a canal near a road in Estrella, Phoenix, where the photographer reports having seen six others. Sadly, Burrowing Owls walking across roads regularly end up under the wheels of passing cars. They also have to face the threat of domestic cats and dogs.
Here we see a line of cute, fluffy baby Burrowing Owls. Females will lay a maximum of 12 eggs, yet only four to five owlets normally live long enough to find their own burrows. We’re crossing our fingers that all of these youngsters in southeast Alberta made it.
Next, a pair of owls stands guard outside a burrow in Brian Piccolo Park, Florida. “By the looks of things, it would appear we may be seeing chicks soon,” says photographer Michael Pancier. “Still early, but seeing both at their post like this guarding the burrow is a sure sign.” Although Burrowing Owls are mostly monogamous, male owls do sometimes take a second mate.
Burrowing Owls have the longest legs of any owl species, but perhaps surprisingly, they don’t always use them to dig their own burrows. They often nest in vacant tunnels excavated by mammals, or even in underground nest boxes made by humans. However, if the ground is soft enough, they will dig their own homes. Burrowing Owls collect materials such as cow dung to line their burrows.
These two owlets don’t look too impressed. Maybe mum and dad are a little late bringing their food back to the burrow. Unusually, Burrowing Owls are able to eat fruit and seeds – like those of prickly pears and cacti – as well as the more common owl foods of insects and small animals. Another quirky characteristic of this unusual species.
These two young owls almost blend into the grass – except for their unmistakable bright yellow eyes. Burrowing Owls are known by several different names, mostly related to their peculiar habit of living underground. They are sometimes called Gopher Owls, Prairie Dog Owls, Ground Owls or Tunnel Owls.
Meet one of the parents at the Fort Whyte Alive Interpretive Center, where seven owlets were born last year. The biggest threats to Burrowing Owls in North America are habitat loss and the culling of one of their major food sources: the prairie dog. Fortunately, efforts are being made to protect the species.
Different US regions have their own conservation plans for the Burrowing Owl. The San Francisco Bay Area has seen the number of owls plummet in recent years. Hence, local conservationists are planning to reverse the decline by setting aside habitat areas, educating residents, and monitoring Burrowing Owl numbers.
It’s sad to think that Burrowing Owls are not as plentiful as they once were and that their numbers are in danger of dwindling even more. Hopefully, enough effort will be made to save these unique owls, so that they continue to bring joy to people all over North and South America.