- Class: Aves
- Order: Strigifromes
- Family: Strigidea
- Genus: Athene
- Species: cunicularia
Named for the Greek goddess of knowledge and wisdom, Athena, whose trusty companion was an owl, the burrowing owl shows off its smarts by using some brilliant tactics to provide for and protect its offspring. Instead of wasting precious energy and time digging their own burrows for nests, the burrowing owls will often use existing burrows from squirrels, rodents, or even reptiles. However, if they cannot find a suitable available burrow, they will improvise and use synthetic structures like PVC or drainage piping.
Pretty bird. The burrowing owl has striking eyebrows, big bright eyes, and long legs. They are about the size of a robin but with a bit more bulk, with a large round head and short tail. Their coloring ranges from dark to sandy brown, with light brown to white spots, and they have a lighter belly. Unlike other owls, the male and female are roughly the same size.
Take cover. Horned owls, hawks, foxes, badgers, and even domestic pests hunt the burrowing owl. The owls will often run into their burrows when they threatened—and to scare off predators, they will often make a hissing or rattling noise. This sound is very similar to the noises made by rattlesnakes, whose burrows the owls will often use.
HABITAT AND DIET
Home and the range. Burrowing owls can be found in a wide variety of areas, including open grasslands, deserts, coastal areas, and even suburban and urban areas. They have an extensive range, from southern Canada to the southern tip of Argentina.
Burrow in. Unlike other owls, burrowing owls use underground burrows for nesting. More often than not, they repurpose a burrow excavated by other animals, like ground squirrels, prairie dogs, armadillos, kangaroo rats, snakes, and tortoises. If the ground is soft or sandy, particularly in Florida, they dig the tunnels themselves. If they cannot find a suitable burrow, they can use plastic pipes.
Good eats. Burrowing owls eat insects and rodents, but they also hunt lizards, frogs, bats, songbirds, young rabbits, and even ground squirrels. Females tend to hunt during the day and often hunt insects. Males tend to hunt during night, hunting for rodents and other vertebrates. When the female is incubating the eggs, the male will bring food in the morning and evening. In addition, when the chicks have hatched both parents will forage for the nestlings.
At the San Diego Zoo Global, the owls are given a carnivore and insectivore diet of mice, large mealworms, crickets, and a commercial carnivore diet (Natural Balance).
Scat scatter. To help food come to them, the owls scatter animal scat at the burrow entrance to attract insects and beetles. If they end up with too much "home delivery," they may store extra food in a larder, similar to a pantry, in their tunnels. In 1997, one burrowing owl cache in Canada was found to contain more than 200 rodents.
Chicks and interior decorating. Burrowing owls are mostly monogamous and live in semi-colonial neighborhoods with burrows as close as 30 feet (9 meters) apart. The breeding season is from March to August, and breeding pairs often use the same burrows for many years.
To attract a mate, the male will make circular flights to show off, and sing a special song. He will also bring little gifts to the females, like food or something that catches his eye. Both male and female will preen each other on the face and head, and touch bills. During this time, the mated pairs will stay near their dedicated burrows. Non-breeding owls may live on tuffs of plants and not in burrows.
The clutch size is 4 to 11 smooth, white eggs. After the eggs have been laid, the male continues to bring items to the female to decorate the nest, especially during the incubation period. At about two weeks old, the hatchlings start to explore the world out of the burrow, although they cannot fly yet. At about four weeks old, they start to take short flights around the burrow. By six weeks, the chicks will fledge, but stay in their parents’ territory to forage. They will become fully mature at one year old.
Owl chatter. Burrowing owls make a variety of noises to communicate, including clucking or a chattering call, and even hissing and rattling when alarmed. To show excitement or distress, they head bob.
AT THE ZOO
Our owls. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park currently has one breeding pair of burrowing owls located at Condor Ridge.
As of April 2018, the Safari Park also has two other breeding pairs that are off exhibit at the bird breeding complex. These birds are part of a project, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, that aims to prevent local extinction through a burrowing owl breeding and release program.
You can watch a live video feed of a pair of off-exhibit burrowing owls on our new online Burrowing Owl Cams. Check out our Aviary Cam and Burrow Cam, and watch as they establish and manage their burrow.
Under siege. Burrowing owls face threats from habitat loss, environmental toxins, and vehicle collisions. Additionally, western burrowing owls in San Diego County reuse the burrows dug by other animals, primarily ground squirrels, so they are at risk because of the decline of available burrows caused by certain programs that remove these rodents.
San Diego Zoo Global has partnered with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to better understand habitat use, nesting success, and survival rates of birds in fragmented areas in San Diego County. GPS and satellite technology is helping to reveal the secret lives of burrowing owls.
Since 2011, the San Diego Zoo Institute of Conservation Research has been partnering with other organizations on several projects with burrowing owls found in San Diego County. One program involves tracking the population of the owls centered in Otay Mesa (near the US/Mexico border). To track the birds, many different techniques are used, like remote cameras, GPS mini backpacks with data loggers, and colored leg bands. San Diego Zoo Global launched a citizen science project in 2019, where people with internet access can help classify field photos taken at burrow entrances. Check out Wildwatch Burrowing Owl at wildwatchburrowingowl.org.
Another research project is working to create a variety of ways to reestablish ground squirrels in certain protected areas in the county. Several tests have been conducted, including bringing ground squirrels into areas where they are no longer found and altering the landscape to encourage other squirrels to move in and dig burrows that the owls can reuse.