Podcast

Listen to Burrowing Owls Hiss Like Rattlesnakes

These tiny desert dwellers use sound to warn away unwanted visitors.

This story is brought to you by BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.

The Burrowing Owl’s vocal abilities have raised eyebrows among birders and scientists alike. Because as well as its double hoots and other calls, the Burrowing Owl is known for another hair-raising sound: a long, rattling hiss.

Standing on almost comically long legs, this yellow-eyed owl is very active in daytime, and its hissing habit may have evolved to mimic the sibilant warning given by a cornered rattlesnake. This sonic threat of a venomous reptile could be just enough to warn away most unwanted visitors from the owl’s nest burrow. In one experiment, ground squirrels were nearly as alarmed by the Burrowing Owl’s hiss as they were by the recording of a real rattlesnake.

Despite its name, the Burrowing Owl doesn’t do much digging, though. Instead, it’s more of a squatter, nesting and roosting in vacant rodent burrows, often those of prairie dogs . . . until it’s time to eat. Not content with providing the Burrowing Owl’s accommodation, rodents—especially mice—also provide lunch. Well, they are lunch—with a side of large insects. After feasting the Burrowing Owl retires again to its mostly subterranean life.

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Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Burrowing Owl recorded by G. A. Keller; Rattlesnake recorded by S. R. Pantle; Burrowing Owl rattlesnake-mimic recording courtesy of Jeff Rice for the Acoustic Atlas at Montana State University.
BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black

Written by Bob Sundstorm
© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org    August 2014/2015   Narrator: Michael Stein

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