Burrowing Owl

Content Cover Image

By travelwayoflife (Flickr: Owl Family Portrait) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) are a curious and expressive species of owl. They are related to other species of small owl in the genus Athene (Little Owl, Spotted Owlet, and Forest Owlet) due to genetic and physical similarities, but are sometimes put in a genus of their own, Speotyto, due to their unique behavior. Burrowing Owls are largely terrestrial and are the only owls known for being diurnal and ground-loving. They can often be seen foraging around their burrows during the day, but they typically avoid midday heat and do their hunting at night.  

The Burrowing Owl is also known for its various personalities, as depicted in photography of the bird. Athene cunicularia goes by various other colloquial names as well including: Billy Owl, Ground Owl, Long-Legged Owl, Prairie Owl, and Prairie Dog Owl.  Burrowing Owls in the United States and Canada are listed under varying levels of conservation status due to the fact that direct human activity and treatment of habitat is the main factor in determining the burrowing owls’ success or destruction.


Burrowing Owls are one of the smallest members of the owl family; measuring only 7-10 inches tall with about a two foot wingspan, Burrowing Owls typically weigh only around 4 or 5 ounces. Male Burrowing Owls differ from other birds in that they can be either the same size or larger than the female Burrowing Owl. The Burrowing Owl has a spotted back, bars on its front, and no visible ear tufts, but one of its most easily identifiable features is its long-leggedness. This species of owl also has wide, bright yellow eyes that are extremely expressive and stand out against the more subdued brown coloring of the owl’s body.



Burrowing Owls occupy grasslands, shrub steppes, and savannas and can also be found in open areas such as agricultural fields, old fields, airports, golf courses, and residential zones.  In the plains states, Burrowing Owls largely depend on prairie dogs to provide their burrows. These owls are most often seen living in abandoned prairie dog holes, frequently amid a larger, still active prairie dog town.  Burrowing Owls can occupy similar habitats in the burrows of other fossorial mammals, such as badgers, pocket gophers, or foxes, on dry, flat expanses of land with low vegetation.  Burrowing Owls typical do not use long-abandoned burrows because the burrow entrance becomes overgrown with vegetation.

Social and Breeding Behavior

Burrowing Owls are usually found grouped in loose colonies. They prefer burrows adjacent to burrows occupied by other owls, although Burrowing Owl pairs can nest alone if other owls are absent from the area. Burrowing Owls often evict other animal species from desirable burrows.

Much like prairie dogs, Burrowing Owls have their own system of communication within these colonies, and it is speculated that they differ from the solitary nature of other owls due to their vulnerability to predators such as coyotes, hawks, and even other owls. Burrowing Owls have been noted to voice signals from their mounds to the rest of their colony in times of danger.

Burrowing Owls are also largely monogamous, and are often observed in pairs at the top of mounds or in groups around a particular burrow. Female Burrowing Owls have broods with six to twelve chicks.

Other Behaviors



Female and her brood.

During nesting, the male forages for food to bring the female. After nesting, the male acts as caregiver to the chicks. In the Llano Estacado area, males typically remain at the burrow year-round, and fiercely protect it from small mammals, predators, and other Burrowing Owls. Females and young migrate to Mexico in the winter.        

Perhaps what is most endearing about this species of owl, though, is its personality, as evidenced in photography of the species (http://macstonephoto.blogspot.com/2010/12/burrowing-owls.html). The owls’ terrestrial nature and diurnal behavior makes them easier to photograph in the wild than other owl species.





      National Wildlife Federation (nwf)



Hunting and Foraging

Burrowing Owls are carnivores that feed on a wide variety of prey types.  In western North America, invertebrates, mostly insects, made up 90% of prey, mammals, mostly rodents, made up 7%, reptiles and amphibians made up 2%, while birds made up less than 1% of the prey.  Common insects eaten include grasshoppers, beetles, and Jerusalem crickets and common mammals in the burrowing owl diet include young prairie dogs, ground squirrels, pocket gophers, voles, mice, and young rabbits.  Diets can vary seasonally in response to changes in prey abundance.
Most of its food gathering-whether hunting or foraging-is done during the day, already starkly contrasting the nocturnal nature of its relatives; what is even more unique is the way the Burrowing Owl hunts.

With a small frame and long legs, the Burrowing Owl is built, unlike other owls, for movement on the ground. Burrowing Owls typically catch food in their feet, and hunt by running, walking, or hopping after prey. True to their avian nature, though, they also fly from perches (on street signs and fence posts) to gather food.

The Burrowing Owl also has a unique foraging strategy: “decorated burrows.” These owls have been known to cover the opening to their burrow with mammal dung to attract insects on which they feed. This practice, and the abundance of feathers, owl scat, and owl pellets around their burrows, allows for the ability to distinguish owl burrows from prairie dog burrows.


Burrowing owls are preyed upon by hawks, falcons, great horned owls, coyotes, badger, skunks, weasels, bobcats and domesticated dogs. Rattlesnakes and prairie dogs can prey on burrowing owl eggs and nestlings.

Threats and Conservation Status:  


Burrowing Owls live to about 6-8 years old, and can live to be up to 10 in captivity. They are prey to larger mammals and raptors, but their main threats are humans. Many owls die from collisions with cars, as their habitats are frequently found near roads. The limiting factor for Burrowing Owl survival, however, is availability of habitat. Burrowing Owls are able to dig their own burrows, but largely rely on the ready-made burrows of fossorial mammals, and they nest terrestrially. 

Before more permanent human settlement, the Llano Estacado was home to around 500 million prairie dogs and ample habitat for Burrowing Owls. Since humans have aimed to control populations of prairie dogs and other fossorial mammals, however, that number has inevitably declined and Burrowing Owls are suffering the effects of habitat destruction. Other human practices, like farming, ranching, and building on land where burrows were available has put Burrowing Owl numbers at a steady decline in most areas in the Western United States. In Florida, there have been successful efforts to reinstate native populations of Burrowing Owl in regions where they have declined. In the Llano Estacado, there have not been any such efforts yet, but perhaps there will be if further human development in the area causes more of a decline in Burrowing Owl population.




Scientific Classification














A. cunicularia


References and Further Reading


This article was written by a student at Texas Tech University participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.



Bush, C. (2014). Burrowing Owl. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbfb7f7896bb431f6bf90f


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