Burrowing Owls: Welcome to the Underground

A Different Kind Of Owl:

On our recent trip to New York we stopped in Queens to visit the Zoo there the night before we flew back to Tennessee. While there we witnessed one of the strangest owls I have ever seen, the Burrowing Owl.

What Makes Them Different?:

They have a leg up on the competition:

There are several characteristics of this owl species that set it apart from other owls. As you can see in this picture, the owls have long legs.  By having long legs they can scan the grasslands while standing on the ground or sitting on a low perch like a rock or branch.

They have mastered the underground:

Rather than burrow in trees and barns, these owls prefer to use abandoned prairie dog burrows or even man-made structures embedded in the ground. I once saw some in a culvert in a construction site in Sacramento. They can dig burrows themselves if necessary, but seem to enjoy re-purposing the work of others before them.

They often live in groups:

As you probably know from previous experience, owls are usually solitary individuals. Burrowing owls, however, often live in colonies of many owls. This provides for better security since one owl can sound an alarm so that many can respond immediately.

They have yellow eyes:

If you have seen other owls up close or in photos you probably noticed they usually have orange eyes. Burrowing owls have yellow eyes. These allow the birds to see well in both the dark and daylight.

They store up food for the future:

One of the interesting traits of these little birds is their ability to plan for the future. When food is plentiful they often store it up in their dens for hard times to come.

They even eat the small stuff:

Most owls prefer to eat rodents like mice, rats, rabbits and other small mammals. Burrowing owls take advantage of many kinds of food overlooked by others including insect, spiders, scorpions, and centipedes. In this manner they are important to the ecosystem’s balance and help keep these creatures in check. They also eat reptiles, (lizards and small snakes),  amphibians, (toads and frogs and salamanders), and even fish when available. In addition to these arthropods they also specialize in eating small rodents in their territory. Some of these include groundhogs, squirrels, mice, voles, pocket gophers and the like.

They have some special tricks for acquiring their food and repelling enemies:

A strange greeting: May seem smelly and trashy!

One interesting thing I discovered about these little birds is their habit of laying out a carpet in front of their burrows. What do you suppose this carpet is made of? I bet you didn’t guess it was poop! Yes, they gather up the dung from deer, cows, buffalo.”Why on earth would they do this?”, you might ask. Well, mixing dung and grass attracts one of their favorite foods, dung beetles. They get their food brought right to their doorstep. Another advantage of such a carpet is that it repels many would-be enemies from entering their burrows. They smell the animal feces and flee the other way thinking a larger animal may be near by. They also often scatter small pieces of paper, tin foil, bottle caps, and the like around their entrances. Scientists are not sure exactly why they do this but it seems to be some kind of an indication that the dwelling is occupied. They say. “Seek another place to build your home!”

Don’t let them rattle you!:

Strange as it might seem, these little birds can make a sound that is very similar to the rattlesnake. They use this alarm when other animals get too close to their nesting places. It seems to be pretty effective! I think I would think twice before messing with them if I heard this sound. How about you?

They have a high tolerance for gasses that would harm other creatures:

Living underground may seem like a great place to live but one of the dangers of such a dwelling is the high concentrations of Carbon Dioxide that flows into these low places from above. Since CO-2 is much heavier than the other gasses in the atmosphere it has a tendency to flow underground into any depressions in the ground it can find. God created these birds so they have a much higher tolerance to this gas than other creatures.

Night and Day Shifts:

Though these owls prefer hunting in the evening, especially at dusk, they also can be active in the daytime when necessary. As you know, many insects are most active in daylight. The owls often sit on perches just above the ground waiting to see movement. When motion is sighted they quickly can respond by either pouncing on their prey or hovering above before dropping to capture it.

Other interesting things to know about these birds:

Burrowing owls are classified into these groupings:

Kingdom = Animalia

Phylum = Vertebrata

Class = Aves

Order = Strigiformes

Family = Strigidae

Genus =   Athene

Species cunicularia

They are found mostly in range-land, grasslands, near airports and golf courses.

They are small in stature, up to 9 inches tall.

Males are actually slightly larger than females (This is unusual in the animal Kingdom).

Their range is mostly in the Mid-West in the US, though they also are found frequently in Florida. They can also be found in Central  and South America in the grasslands there.

The father shares the duties of caring for his mate and young. While the female incubates the eggs the males spend time hunting to bring her food so she can spend the time caring for her developing young. The males also help acquire food when the young emerge from the eggs.

Rather than take to the air when threatened, they often flatten themselves near the ground or run off quickly on their feet. They are very speedy!

Just call me Bob:  One unique behavior of these creatures is their up and down movements. They bob up and down when on the ground or standing on their perches. This seems to help them see movement around them.

They are good at digging. Some of the burrows they dig can be up to 9 feet long with many chambers along the path. These are used for storing food as well as providing many hiding places if enemies enter the burrows.

The more I study the many creatures God has created for us to enjoy, the more I see how He designed each creature for where it lives and has provided built in instincts for them to survive.

We need to be careful in our use of our God given resources including the many kinds of living things around us. One of the sad things about burrowing owls is that their numbers are decreasing due to man’s development in the places where they live. Hopefully mankind will improve our respect for needed areas for these and other creatures to live and thrive so that others can enjoy them in the future.


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