Burrowing Owls – Will They Survive In North America?

by Larry Jordan on May 26, 2008

Burrowing Owl Portrait

Burrowing Owl with Sunset In Its Eyes photo by David Roach

 I was very fortunate and extremely pleased to be invited to spend a day with my friend Steve on a 16,000 acre cattle ranch in Central California where he is in charge of monitoring over 400 nestboxes.  That’s right, I said over 400 nestboxes.  And that is only on the ranch I visited that day.  Steve (with a little help from his friends) monitors nearly 900 nestboxes of different bird species in several locations.

I will be posting more stories of my trip with Steve coming up but I really wanted to share my Burrowing Owl story with you today.  When Brigitte and I moved to northern California back in 1980, we were amazed at the abundant wildlife and beauty of this area.  One of our first observations was the abundance and variety of birds we were seeing everyday.  This is the reason I began building bird houses and putting them up all over our new property.

One of the many new birds we would see all the time was the Burrowing Owl.  They would be standing in the middle of the road when we came home from town at night.  I remember the first time we saw this little owl, just standing there, in the middle of our gravel road.  He just stood there for quite a long time.  We studied him so we could get home and look him up in our field guide.  We had no idea what kind of owl it could be with those long legs, just standing there.

Burrowing Owl Standing Guard

Burrowing Owl Standing Guard photo by David Roach

 We saw these Burrowing Owls fairly often for years on our road but we haven’t seen one for years now.  Sadly their numbers seem to be declining in California and the Burrowing Owl is listed as endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico and a species of special concern in Florida and most of the western U.S.  Fortunately they are doing well in more tropical regions and their numbers seem to be increasing near the Amazon rainforest due to deforestation.

Owls are an incredible group of birds that have adapted to many environments, all over the world.  They are predatory birds that can be found on every continent except Antarctica.  The Burrowing Owl has adapted by building its nest underground.  They will use burrows abandoned by small mammals like ground squirrels, skunks and prairie dogs or even larger burrows made by armadillos or badgers.  They have been known to excavate their own burrows also if the ground is soft enough.

Burrowing Owl Chick

Burrowing Owl Chick photo by David Roach

Burrowing Owls inhabit dry, open areas with no trees and short grass.  They can even be found on golf courses or in vacant lots or cemeteries.  Luckily for me, they can also be found on a huge cattle ranch in central California.  You see, Burrowing Owls will also nest in man made nestboxes.  My friend Steve has built 24 of these nestboxes. I just happened to be the lucky one to see the first images of the female and 7 eggs inside the buried nestbox as he operated the camera inside the nestbox (sorry, no photos).

A Burrowing Owl’s diet varies greatly depending on the time of year and availability of prey.  They will eat mostly insects, small mammals and reptiles but also take readily to fruits and seeds when other foods are lacking.  They are active both day and night and can be spotted near their burrow entrance when nesting as the male will stand guard while the female broods.  They are most active at dusk and dawn, catching more insects during the day and more mammals at night.  On the cattle ranch their main diet was the dung beetle found, you guessed it, in cattle dung.

Burrowing Owl Portrait

Burrowing Owl Portrait photo by David Roach

Steve has built his 24 underground Burrowing Owl boxes so that they may be observed using a small camera, dropped into the box through a piece of PVC pipe from the surface.  This way these beautiful birds can be monitored without much disturbance and we can follow their eventual recovery in California.

I will be installing at least one of these artificial nestboxes on my property to invite the Burrowing Owl back to my land.  For a simple plan to build one of these nestboxes send me an email and I will be happy to send it to you.  My email address is located at the bottom of my About Me page.  In the meantime, if you have any trouble identifying one of these great little owls here is a photo to help you out.

Burrowing Owl Atop a Sign

Burrowing Owl Atop Sign at Gilbert Riparian Reserve, AZ
photo by Bob Sheldon

I want to thank Bob Sheldon for this last photo and David Roach for all of his incredible photos of the Burrowing Owl.  A special thank you goes out to my friend Steve for inviting me to his “bird trail”.  It was a day I will never forget.

Happy Birding!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Pat O'Donnell September 30, 2010 at 4:24 pm

I had no idea Burrowing Owls were in such trouble. Happy to hear, though, that at least nest boxes can help this wonderful, charismatic bird species.

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