by Grant Yang
Burrowing Owls are found in open, dry grasslands, agricultural and range lands in North America from Canada to Mexico. They also live in the foothills, valleys, and coast areas of central and southern California in barren, treeless marshlands like the Palo Alto Baylands. They live primarily in open areas because of their hunting and flying habits.
The Burrowing Owl uses a bobbing motion, perched on a fencepost, to amplify the effect of its binocular vision when hunting. Its diet consists of large arthropods, beetles and grasshoppers, as well as small mammals, especially mice, rats, gophers, rabbits, and ground squirrels. Burrowing Owls will also eat reptiles, lizards and snakes, amphibians, scorpions, and other birds, such as sparrows and horned larks. Moths are a delicacy, and when hunting, owls will grab them in mid-air along with other aerial prey like bats and dragonflies. After catching its prey, the Burrowing Owl will return to its perch or stand near its nest on the ground.
The Burrowing Owl is nine to ten inches tall and weighs five to six ounces. It has a short tail, long stilt-like legs, and a relatively large wingspan of 22 inches. Its white throat and eyebrow accent its yellow eyes. It has a sandy colored head and back, but its wings, which the males use to flash while courting, are white.
Burrowing Owls perform an elaborate courtship involving cooing, bowing, scratching, nipping, stretching and repeated short flights; however, they do not stay together with their mate for more than a year. After the female lays her eggs, usually about 7 to 10, the male protects the young from predators, including skunks, opossums, and rattlesnakes. However, both parents hunt to provide for the young. Breeding pairs of Burrowing Owls live in nests in colonies of 4 to 5 families. Burrowing Owls can often be seen outside its burrow either next to the entrance or perched on a post nearby. In this way the male owls can protect the burrow by making a call to the rest of the colony. When threatened the owl bobs and bows while imitating the sound of a rattlesnake.
The Burrowing Owl is unique among owls in that the male owls are larger and lighter in color than the female owls. It is also unique because it is diurnal, active by day, rather than nocturnal, active by night, as are most other owls. However, Burrowing Owls are known to hunt day and night. The Burrowing Owl is most unique for using burrows of other animals for its nest, hence the name the Burrowing Owl. Although the Burrowing Owl is capable of building its own burrow it often prefers deserted excavations of prairie dogs, badgers, ground squirrels, and other medium to large burrowing animals. They have even been known to use artificial burrows built by conservationists. The owls will usually line the burrow with dried horse and cattle manure, feathers, and other debris for insulation and to mask the scent of the owls from predators.
There are many factors which hinder the survival of the Burrowing
Owl. There are many natural predators to the Burrowing Owl like other
owls, dogs, cats, snakes, hawks, badgers, skunks, foxes, and weasels.
However, man by far is the Burrowing Owl's worst enemy. Expanding
towns and intensive agriculture directly prevent the Burrowing Owl
from feeding because it cannot hunt in high vegetation, preferring to
hunt flying low to the ground. Man also indirectly hurts the
Burrowing Owl by destroying the ecosystem around it. Ground
squirrels, badgers, and prairie dogs, whose burrows the Owls are
dependent on for a nesting ground and food, are considered pest
animals and are killed by humans. Similarly, to protect agriculture,
grasshopper insecticides are frequently used, killing one of the
Burrowing Owl's major sources of food. Burrowing owls also get hit by
cars while feeding on road-kill, get caught in fences, hit overhead
wires, and are shot in their burrows when mistaken for squirrels.
Storms and floods of often trap birds in their burrows because of the
location of the nests on the ground. Due to many of these limiting
factors, it will be difficult for the owl population to recover
unless a conscious effort is made to protect this species of special
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