Photo: Jean Hall/Audubon Photography Awards

Burrowing Owl

Athene cunicularia

Cowboys sometimes called these owls "howdy birds," because they seemed to nod in greeting from the entrances to their burrows in prairie-dog towns. Colorful fiction once held that owls, prairie-dogs, and rattlesnakes would all live in the same burrow at once. A long-legged owl of open country, often active by day, the Burrowing Owl is popular with humans wherever it occurs, but it has become rare in many areas owing to loss of habitat.
Conservation status Has been declining for many years, owing to prairie dog and ground squirrel control programs, also habitat loss, accidental mortality (many are killed by cars). Now considered endangered or threatened in some areas.
Family Owls
Habitat Open grassland, prairies, farmland, airfields. Favors areas of flat open ground with very short grass or bare soil. Prairie-dog towns once furnished much ideal habitat in west, but these are now scarce, and the owls are found on airports, golf courses, vacant lots, industrial parks, other open areas.
Cowboys sometimes called these owls "howdy birds," because they seemed to nod in greeting from the entrances to their burrows in prairie-dog towns. Colorful fiction once held that owls, prairie-dogs, and rattlesnakes would all live in the same burrow at once. A long-legged owl of open country, often active by day, the Burrowing Owl is popular with humans wherever it occurs, but it has become rare in many areas owing to loss of habitat.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, Western
  • fledglings
  • juveniles
  • adult, Florida
  • adult, Western
  • adult, Western
  • adult, Western
Feeding Behavior

Hunts mostly at dusk and at night, but does much hunting by day during breeding season. Hunts by a variety of methods, including swooping down from a perch, hovering over fields, or running along ground, then clutching prey in its talons. May catch flying insects in the air.


Eggs

Typically 7-10 in west, 4-6 in Florida; can range from 3 to 12. Eggs white, becoming nest-stained. Incubation by female only, 28-30 days; male brings food for female during incubation. Young: Female remains with young most of time at first; male brings food, and female feeds it to young. After 1-2 weeks, female begins hunting also. Young may leave nest at about 6 weeks or sometimes earlier, but not capable of strong flight at first. 1 brood per year, sometimes 2 in Florida.


Young

Female remains with young most of time at first; male brings food, and female feeds it to young. After 1-2 weeks, female begins hunting also. Young may leave nest at about 6 weeks or sometimes earlier, but not capable of strong flight at first. 1 brood per year, sometimes 2 in Florida.

Diet

Mostly insects and small mammals. Diet varies with season and location. In summer in many areas, eats mostly large insects, including grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, moths, caterpillars; also scorpions, centipedes, other arthropods. For much of year, may feed mostly on small mammals (such as voles, mice, ground squirrels), some small birds. May eat many frogs, toads, lizards, and snakes, perhaps especially in Florida.


Nesting

Birds in courtship may repeatedly fly up, hover, and descend. On ground near nest burrow, male feeds female; members of pair nibble at each other's bills and preen each other's feathers. Nest site is in burrow in ground, in area surrounded by bare soil or short grass. Florida birds usually dig their own burrows, but those in west usually use old burrow left by prairie-dogs, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, armadillos, or other animals. Burrows excavated by the owls may be up to 6-10' long, with nest in chamber at end. May line burrow entrance and nest chamber with cow manure, but no real nest built.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Migration

Birds in Florida and parts of southwest may be permanent residents, but northern birds migrate south, some reaching southern Mexico and Central America. Strays sometimes have wandered north from Florida or east from the Great Plains.

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Migration

Birds in Florida and parts of southwest may be permanent residents, but northern birds migrate south, some reaching southern Mexico and Central America. Strays sometimes have wandered north from Florida or east from the Great Plains.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Liquid cackling; also a mellow coo-coooo, repeated twice.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.
Avian Architecture

Avian Architecture

Purpose-built structures such as nest boxes, burrows, platforms, or roosting towers can help bird populations rebound

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