Burrowing Owl
July 13, 2021
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
Stacks Image 325879
The little burrowing owl is the only owl that lives in holes in the ground. Their native habitat is the deserts, plains, and fields of western North and South America and Florida. They use abandoned holes dug by prairie-dogs, squirrels, armadillos, or other animals. They also dig their own holes, especially in Florida where the ground is soft and sandy. The holes dug by the owls themselves are six to 10 inches deep with a nest chamber at the end.

The bird is small, about 8 inches tall and weighing only 4-7 ounces. It has brown plumage, spotted with white, yellow eyes, long white legs, and lack the ear tufts common to owls. It has a white band above their eyes and under their beaks. The owl’s wingspan is 20 to 24 inches.

The burrowing owl’s long legs allow it to run on the ground to escape predators and chase food. “Rather than fly away, they often run or flatten themselves against the ground when disturbed” (Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute).

During the breeding season (about February to July), the burrowing owl hunts during the day, but at other times it hunts primarily at night like other owls. They have excellent night vision.

The males and females often form permanent bond pairs and may live in colonies of several pairs nesting in the same area. The males line the nest with grass. They often line the entrance with cattle manure, which masks the birds’ scent from potential predators and attracts tasty insects, particularly dung beetles, one of the owl’s favorite foods. During nesting season, they decorate the outside of the nest with debris such as paper and bottle caps. They cache food to ensure a good supply during nesting season.

They have a higher resistance to carbon dioxide so they can live in the stuffy condition of their burrows (birdfeederhub.com).

Both parents take turns incubating the eggs, and both care for the owlets after they hatch. “While in the nest, the owlets’ distress cry mimics the sound of a rattlesnake and scares off predators” (Smithsonian).

Mother owls hunt and feed their chicks, preen their babies' feathers to remove fleas or mites, and even bring gifts of found objects for the chicks to play with” (come-to-cape-coral.com).

When the owlets are a couple of weeks old, they begin to spend time outside of the nest. At three to four weeks, they learn to fly and are soon able to survive on their own.

Florida has its own sub-species (
Athene floridana). They live across the northern part of the state, including the panhandle, as well as in small areas on the Gulf Coast and on the central Atlantic coast. Cape Coral, Florida, has a large population of burrowing owls (roughly 2,500 burrows) and has adopted it as the official city bird. The city marks the burrows with white stakes and places perching stands nearby. Cape Coral owls are accustomed to humans and will often allow them to approach within about 20 feet. If you get nearer, they will start bobbing their heads up and down and will dart into their holes.

The bobbing head has brought them the name “howdy owl,” as they seem to be nodding a greeting.

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