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Burrowing Owl (Athene Cunicularia)

Burrowing owls are small, long-legged owls that primarily live in dry areas, such as rangelands, grasslands, and deserts. They get their name from their unique behavioral trait to burrow into the ground.

While they are not commonly seen by birders, those who know where to look can spot these intriguing birds perched on a power pole or shrub. 

So what makes the burrowing owl so special, what do they look like, and what do they eat?

Scientific Classification

Scientific NameAthene Cunicularia


Common NameBurrowing owl
Other NamesBilly Owl, Prairie Owl, Ground Owl
Name of YoungOwlets
Number of Species16 (2 extinct)
Social BehaviorLives in loose colonies
Group NameParliament
PreyInsects, mice, lizards, gophers
Favorite FoodLarge insects
Activity PatternDiurnal
Biggest ThreatHabitat destruction
PredatorsBirds of prey, wild and domesticated felines and canines
DistributionNorth and South America
HabitatGrasslands, rangelands, deserts, agricultural areas
Est. Population SizeFewer than 10,000 breeding pairs
Conservation StatusLeast Concern[1]
Lifespan9 years

Physical Characteristics

Height7-10 inches
Weight6 ounces
ColorBold white throat and eyebrows
Skin typeFeathers
Wingspan20- 24 inches
Top speedBetween 20 to 40 mph

Burrowing Owl Pictures

The burrowing owl is a small burrowing animal that lives in North American grasslands. They are active during the day and they tend to burrow their nests underground (hence burrowing).

Burrowing Owl on the grass

5 Interesting Facts About Burrowing Owls

Interesting burrowing owl facts are all around if you know where to look. Read these fascinating burrowing owl facts and learn something new.

  1. The burrowing owl gets its name from the fact that it burrows often. They do this, particularly in areas that are hot or dry enough for there not to be a significant cover of vegetation. Burrows can be as deep as 5 feet below ground and usually contain multiple burrows that can house up to four burrowing owls.
  2. The burrowing owl is most active during the day. The burrowing owl is active at any time of the day when it’s warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 Celsius).
  3. The burrowing owl hoards food. Burrowing owls are known to store different kinds of foods within their burrows. The burrowing owl hoards food by digging burrows about 40-60 centimeters deep. They line the burrows with “plant litter” which consists of owl pellets, prey remains, and non-digestible plant material.
  4. Burrowing owls lack ear tufts. The burrowing owl’s lack of ear tufts might not be familiar to many, but this characteristic is the burrowing owl’s most distinctive feature.
  5. Burrowing owls are one of the smallest owl species in the world. They are a type of owl that generally measures from 33 to 39 cm in length. They have long legs, which allow them the ability to run and take cover quickly from predators.

Burrowing Owl Classification and Evolution

The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) is one of nineteen living species within the genus Athene, part of the larger grouping of owls in the Strigidae family.

Burrowing owls have been historically linked with fossorial mammals such as prairie dogs (Cynomys sp.) which are endemic in North America.[1] 

These animals were also found in the plains in South America. The burrowing owls use their burrows for nesting.

The burrowing owls most closely related are burrowing parrots, burrowing parakeets, and Mauritius scops-owls which all share similar physical features of the beak, body size, preferred habitat, and burrowing behavior.

Burrowing Owl face

Types of Burrowing Owls

There are more than 16 different types of burrowing owls, geographically separated into two groups: northern burrowing owls and desert burrowing owls.

Northern burrowing owls are found in western Canada and along the west coast of the United States from Washington to northern Mexico.

Desert burrowing owls are mainly sandy brown with black speckles on the chest and back. They have yellow eyes surrounded by orange-yellow facial disks. The burrowing owl has a gray bill with a darker gray tip, white eyebrows, and gray legs.

Related: Types of Owls (Full List)

Burrowing Owl SpeciesHabitat/ Location
Bolivian burrowing owl Bolivian altiplano
Margarita Island burrowing owlMargarita Island
East Colombian burrowing owlEastern Colombia
Southern burrowing owlLowlands of southern Bolivia and southern Brazil south to Tierra del Fuego
Florida burrowing owlFlorida and the Bahamas
Brazilian burrowing owlCentral and eastern Brazil
Cuban burrowing owlCuba and Isla de la Juventud
Western burrowing owl Southern Canada through the Great Plains south to Central America
South Andean burrowing owlAndes from central Peru to northwestern Argentina
Guyanese burrowing owlSouthern Guyana and Roraima region
Southwest Peruvian burrowing owlSouthwestern Peru
West Ecuadorean burrowing owlWestern Ecuador
Revillagigedo burrowing owlClarion Island, Revillagigedo Islands
west Colombian burrowing owlWestern Colombia
Hispaniolan burrowing owlHispaniola, Gonâve Island and Beata Island
Corrientes burrowing owlCorrientes Province, Argentina

Burrowing Owl Anatomy, Appearance and Size

The burrowing owl has a large head, short tail, yellow eyes with vertical pupils that can rotate within their sockets, muscular legs, and broad wings. They have feathery bristles called plumicorns on their head, neck, and breast.

The burrowing owl’s feathers are mostly brown-gray in color with the underside of its wings being lighter in color. Their burrows are usually hidden by plants to help protect them from predators.[2]

Being small birds, only about seven to ten inches tall, they are often preyed upon by other animals. They’re not fast either, as their small wings can’t generate much power. This owl has developed longer legs, which enables it to sprint.

Burrowing Owl body details

Burrowing Owl Distribution and Habitat

The burrowing owl is a grassland bird. It’s the only burrowing owl species in North America, and it has a striking appearance with white underparts and a black face mask. This owl lives throughout most of western Canada, throughout Mexico, and into the southwestern U.S.

In general, burrowing owls live in grasslands, deserts, and other open areas where burrowing animals are common. This habitat is usually interspersed with cultivated fields or pastureland, but not forests. Burrowing owls only burrow in soft dirt so they don’t burrow into hard soil or clay.

While burrowing owls do live in grasslands and deserts, they actually require a burrowing animal with which to build their burrow. Burrowing owls are commonly found around prairie dog colonies, but will also burrow near other burrowing animals such as badgers, ground squirrels, marmots, and armadillos.

Burrowing Owls In A Field Of Green Grass

Burrowing Owl Behaviour and Lifestyle

Burrowing owls are also known as ‘digger owls’ because burrows abandoned by other animals are their preferred nest sites. They are mostly diurnal as their main activities take place during the day.

During courtship, burrowing owls will stand almost vertical on top of their burrow with wings spread wide and emit loud hooting calls for up to 3 hours. The burrowing owl’s burrow is usually just big enough for it to fit into and has 2 chambers: a nesting chamber and a roosting chamber.

Burrowing Owl Diet

The burrowing owl prefers to hunt small mammals and insects. They commonly prey and insects and other small animals that can fit in their mouth.

The borrowing has a wide range of prey[3], including:

  • grasshoppers
  • crickets
  • beetles
  • scorpions
  • mice
  • shrews
  • yellow-headed blackbirds

They can fit small mammals in their oral cavity and swallow it whole. When swallowing bones, fur, and other hard-tissue elements they regurgitate them later.

Burrowing Owl Predators and Threat

Burrowing owls are hunted by various predators, including falcons, hawks, and other birds of prey. Wild and domesticated canines and felines also hunt these birds including weasels and badgers.

Towards the top of the list of burrowing owl predators are falcons. Hawks and other birds of prey also hunt burrowing owls for food.

While these predators have been known to feed on the burrowing owls, they also feed on the large insects that make up a portion of the burrowing owl’s diet. Wild dogs may be benign to humans and also pose a threat to burrowing owls that venture out of their burrows.

Burrowing Owl Life Cycle, and Lifespan

The burrowing owl has three life stages: egg, nestling, and adult. An average burrowing owl’s lifespan is about 9 years.

During the burrowing owl life cycle, this bird starts out as an egg. These eggs are white and sometimes have a blue tint to them. An average of four eggs are laid by burrowing owls per clutch. The female burrowing owl incubates these eggs for about 28 days while the nestlings inside of the eggs mature.[3]

Next in the burrowing owl life cycle is the nestling stage. This stage lasts around 35 days where the burrowing owlets are fed by their parents until they can survive on their own.

The final burrowing owl life cycle stage is adulthood, where these owls fly off to find a mate and start nesting or migrating.

Burrowing Owl Population and Conservation Status

The burrowing owl population size fluctuates throughout their range due to predation, habitat loss, and a number of other factors. The population has been estimated to include less than 10,000 burrowing owl breeding pairs.

In the United States, burrowing owl populations have been observed to be on the decline over the past century[4]. However burrowing owls can be found in refuges, parks, and other protected lands where burrowing owl populations are showing positive signs of recovery.

The burrowing owl is listed as near threatened by the IUCN red list.

Burrowing Owl FAQs

What Is a Burrowing Owl?

A burrowing owl is a small scurry-like bird that spends most of its time underground in burrows.

Are Burrowing Owls Aggressive?

Burrowing owls can be aggressive if threatened. In many instances, the owls will aggressively protect that burrow from other predators that could attempt to steal from them or disrupt their home. Burrowing Owls are wild animals and can be unpredictable at times, but generally speaking, they are not aggressive towards humans.

How Fast Is a Burrowing Owl?

The average speed of a burrowing owl is anywhere from 20 to 30 miles per hour, with the maximum speed at 40 miles per hour. However, these owls can only uphold these speeds for a short period of time.

About Kaitlin Mullins

Birds are plenty, and they can be hard to keep track of. Thankfully, Katilin Mullins has taken charge of these. With plenty of free time spent bird watching, she’s a true expert on these intriguing animals.

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