The Burrowing Owl, A Species Of Special Concern In California

by Larry Jordan on September 6, 2009

Burrowing Owl In An Oak Tree all photos by Larry Jordan

The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) is a species of special concern in California and several other states.  They are declining across much of California in response to loss of habitat to urban development, ground squirrel control efforts, and intensive agricultural practices.

Burrowing Owls are active both day and night and usually nest in colonies made up of several underground burrows.  In the midwest these small owls are known to use prairie dog burrows but here in California they are more likely to share their habitat with ground squirrels.

Burrowing Owl In A Natural Burrow

Burrowing Owls prefer dry, open, short-grass plains where they can find burrows in which to nest and escape predators.  They can also be found near cemeteries, vacant lots and golf courses.  These beauties live right next to a golf course near Davis, California, where they have adapted to a high traffic area of golf carts and joggers.

Owls in agricultural environments nest along roadsides and water conveyance structures such as open canals, ditches, and drains that are surrounded by crops.  For this reason the Burrowing Owl population has been increasing in the California Imperial Valley coinciding with the increase in agricultural expansion in that area.  Below is a range map courtesy of Cornell Lab.

Burrowing Owls are opportunistic feeders, they eat primarily arthropods, small mammals, and birds, taking insects during the day and small mammals mostly at night.  Crickets, earwigs and meadow voles are the most frequently found items in Burrowing Owl pellets here in California.

Burrowing Owls not only nest in burrows dug by ground squirrels, prairie dogs, skunks, badgers, armadillos and other ground dwelling mammals, they will also use artificial burrows created by humans.  There is an artificial burrow site here in Davis but I found that many of the owls here occupied the natural burrows made by the ground squirrels.

When disturbed, owls will fly from one burrow opening to another to escape whatever they consider a threat.  This is one reason Burrowing Owls prefer nesting sites with a high density of burrows available.  The burrows are used for escaping predators as well as nesting during breeding season.  I captured a decent photo of this owl as it flew from one burrow opening to another.

I will be talking more about Burrowing Owl habitat and artificial burrows in a following post as I have applied for a grant from California Audubon for a Burrowing Owl project here in Shasta County.  I want to give this beneficial owl species new homes to replace lost habitat in my county.  Wish me luck!

There is a meeting of the Burrowing Owl Consortium coming up on September 17th in Mountainview, California.  If you are interested, click on this link.  Sorry about the late information on this but if you contact Catherine Portman you may still get a seat.  Of course you also want to see the other great bird photos over at Bird Photography Weekly.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Mick September 6, 2009 at 10:45 am

Great photos and a very interesting post. I hope your project succeeds! Unfortunately too much habitat is being changed and too little is done to help the birds we displace.
.-= Mick´s last blog ..Crested Terns =-.


Klaus September 6, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Nicely done, Larry – Good luck with the grant! 🙂


modesto viegas September 6, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Very good work!!!
.-= modesto viegas´s last blog ..Gralha-de-bico-vermelho (Juvenil) =-.


Neil September 6, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Great post and all the best for your project.


Larry September 6, 2009 at 4:33 pm

@Mick thanks for the good wishes. I agree, we need to do more for our animals that are disappearing because of we humans

@Klaus thanks a bunch my friend

@Modesto thank you for the comment!

@Neil thank you very much


chris September 7, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Hi Larry,
A very nice documentary you did there with splendid pictures of this owl!
I guess that the recent fires around California are not gonna the survival of this species! I hope it does not affect them too much!
.-= chris´s last blog ..That is Iceland! =-.


Heather September 7, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Great post, Larry. Those owls that live near the golf course: is there any signage around that alerts folks to the presence of their burrows? It just seems like it would be easier to disturb them since they are in the ground, than it would be if they were in a tree. Good luck with your habitat project!
.-= Heather´s last blog ..My aha! moment with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (BPW) =-.


Larry September 7, 2009 at 11:24 pm

@Chris thank you very much. I haven’t been keeping tract of the fires but I think they are mostly in forested areas. I’m sure they are displacing thousands of animals as well as humans

@Heather strange that you should ask. There is only one sign I saw (and photographed) that said “Attention, Burrowing Owl Habitat, Proceed with care, NO CARTS” and it was in a roped off section where the artificial burrows were, right next to the golf course. I would have thought it would say “Keep Out” rather than “Proceed with care, NO CARTS!” I will post the photo if the sign when I write about the artificial burrows. Thanks for the well wishes!


bob k September 8, 2009 at 8:25 am

A very thorough report on the Burrowing Owls, Larry. Thankfully, the owls at Salton Sea seem to be thriving.

Great shots, by the way!
.-= bob k´s last blog ..A Reunion with Cassin’s =-.


Kyle September 8, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Great post and beautiful shots of the Burrowers, Larry! I look forward to hearing more about your intended project.
.-= Kyle´s last blog ..Gone Fishin’ =-.


Arija September 9, 2009 at 12:58 am

They are such beautiful little birds with that mean and hungry look in their eyes. I suppose domestic and feral cats are a threat as well. Here our now rare ground nesting parrot is mostly threatened not only by loss of habitat, but the associated increase of cats.
.-= Arija´s last blog ..Watery Wednesday ~ 17 Head of the Torrens =-.


Thomas September 9, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Beautiful post and the intensity of the stare is well captured in all the images Larry.
.-= Thomas´s last blog ..Birding in India – Streaked Weaver =-.


Amber Coakley September 9, 2009 at 8:57 pm

I’m excited for you about your owl burrow project – I know the owls will gain safe, well-placed homes with you in charge.

As so often happens with range maps, I live right where that east-meets-west line occurs. This is really a good thing – I could just drive an hour either direction and have a chance to see many species at the edge of their range. Maybe I’ll see a burrowing owl someday – I love your pictures!
.-= Amber Coakley´s last blog ..A Walk in the Woods: 2 Insects and a Gastropod =-.


Larry September 10, 2009 at 5:33 am

@Bob thanks. I will have to take a birding trip to the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge to check that out!

@Kyle thank you. I will keep you updated

@Arija they are threatened by cats and dogs as well. I am sorry to hear about your ground nesting parrot. What species of parrot is that? The critically endangered Night Parrot?

@Thomas thank you for stopping by with your kind words of encouragement

@Amber thank you. I am very excited about the project and can’t wait to get started! You can probably see some Burrowing Owls without driving too far. Check here


Scott September 11, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Excellent source of information and great photos! Keeping my fingers crossed for your grant and looking forward to meeting you at the Burrowing Owl Consortium (…thanks for the meeting tip)
.-= Scott´s last blog ..The cheaper sex and extinction…for Imperial Eagles =-.


Larry September 12, 2009 at 5:32 am

@Scott thank you. I will see you down in Mountain View!


owlfarmer September 12, 2009 at 1:06 pm

I love these little guys, and we have them in north Texas, but I haven’t seen one in years. The chief owl species around here is the Barred variety, pairs of which regale us with very loud sex outside our windows in Spring. Thanks for the great pictures and the reminder about burrowing owls, though. I never met any until I moved here–guess they don’t much hang around the high desert where I’m from in California.


bevson September 13, 2009 at 3:07 am

I saw my first Burrowing Owl at Salton Sea then did not see one again until I was in Brazil. I was surprised at how large their range is. I hope you get the grant and can keep us posted on your project.
.-= bevson´s last blog ..Bird Photography Weekly =-.


Gallicissa September 13, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Great post.

I am quite partial to Athene an Glaucidium Owls which give good photo opportunities during daylight hours.

Good luck, Larry!
.-= Gallicissa´s last blog ..Description of Acute Paucity of Bird Posts Syndrome (APOBPS), its diagnosis, treatment and stuff like that in relation to a bird blog in Sri Lanka =-.


Larry September 14, 2009 at 8:04 pm

@Candace I only have one question, the Barred Owl sex outside your windows in the Spring, is that entertaining, exciting or annoying?

@Bev they do have a large range but it is drastically decreasing in California. I will keep you posted

@Amila thanks. If you want to put a smile on your face, EVERYONE go read Gallicissa’s (Amila’s) post by clicking on the link above on APOBPS 🙂

@Scott thanks for the trackback. Great list!


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