Wild Thing: Underground Owls
If they can't find a prairie dog home to inhabit, burrowing owls will dig their own.
By Evelyn Moreno
Owls are oftentimes portrayed as a symbol of wisdom, but they’re not as bright as avian relatives like ravens, jays and magpies. The majority of their brainpower is focused on keen senses of hearing and vision. What owls lack in traditional wisdom, they make up for in hunting skills.
Burrowing owls are a ground-dwelling species, typically residing in burrows dug by other animals, particularly prairie dogs. They are found in open habitats with limited vegetation such as prairies, grasslands, deserts and pastures. Often, they are found in golf courses, vacant lots, airports and other open areas, and they sometimes make their nests in PVC pipes.
Texas hosts resident burrowing owl populations year-round as well as winter migrants. Burrowing owls are protective of their burrows and tend to crowd around them during the day. Owlets can even mimic rattlesnake sounds to scare away predators.
The burrowing owl is one of the only owls active day and night. With eyesight that’s 100 times more sensitive to light than human eyes, they can see their prey with great clarity. Although their eyes are immobile, they have the ability to turn their head up to 270 degrees to see peripherally.
As predators of rodents, insects and snakes, burrowing owls benefit agricultural and urban areas. They consume about 15 percent of their body weight each day and have a unique digestive system that allows them to eat their prey whole. Bones and other indigestible parts are packed together into pellets by the stomach and are then regurgitated.
Burrowing owls have very sensitive hearing, allowing them to locate their prey with uncanny precision by zeroing in on the prey’s location in three different dimensions. The ear cavities in the skull are asymmetrical, allowing one ear to receive more sound from above and the other from below. An experiment showed that a blind owl can catch mice by sound alone.
Burrowing owls are one of the smallest owls in North America. They have long legs, short tails, distinctive white “eyebrows” and no ear tufts. Both males and females are about 10 inches tall and weigh 6 to 8 ounces.
Silent flight is the cherry on top in the list of adaptations that make owls such efficient predators. Their soft features such as their feathers and head in combination with a wingspan of about 20 to 24 inches allow them to soar quietly and descend on unsuspecting prey.
There has been a decline in population for burrowing owls, correlated with declines in prairie dog populations through eradication programs, agriculture practices, development or the sylvatic plague. Although burrowing owls are able to dig their own burrows, they heavily depend on prairie dogs and other burrowing animals for their habitat. They are currently listed as a bird of national conservation concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are rated as a species of regional importance in the Trans-Pecos area by Partners in Flight.
Although they may not be the wisest, burrowing owls are very valuable to our ecosystem. With preservation of their habitats and protection of other burrowing animals, the burrowing owl can continue to thrive for generations to come.
Common Name: Burrowing owl
Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia
Habitat: Grasslands, pastures, deserts and prairies
Diet: Insects, rodents, amphibians, reptiles and occasionally birds
Did You Know? Burrowing owls collect mammal waste to put around their nest in hopes of attracting dung beetles, one of their favorite insects
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page