Burrowing Owl

The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) is a small, long-legged owl found throughout open landscapes of North and South America. Burrowing owls can be found in grasslands, rangelands, agricultural areas, deserts, or any other dry, open area with low vegetation. They nest and roost in burrows, such as those excavated by prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.). Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are often active during the day, although they tend to avoid the mid-day heat. Most hunting is still done from dusk until dawn, when their owl apomorphies are most advantageous.


Burrowing owls have bright yellow eyes. The beak can be between yellowish or greenish depending on the subspecies. The legs are incompletely feathered and grayish in color. They lack ear tufts and have a flattened facial disc. The owls have prominent white eyebrows and a white "chin" patch which they expand and display during certain behaviors.

Adult owls have brown upperparts with white spotting. The breast and belly are white with variable brown spotting or barring. Juvenile owls are similar in appearance, but they lack most of the white spotting above and brown barring below. Also, the young owls have a buff bar across the upper wing and their breast may be buffy rather than white.

Males and females are similar in size and appearance. However, adult males sometimes appear lighter in color because they spend more time outside the burrow during daylight, and their feathers become sun-bleached. The average adult is slightly larger than an American Robin, at 25 cm (10 inches) length, 53 cm (21 inches) wingspan, and 170g (6 oz).


The typical who who call of a burrowing owl is associated with territory defense and breeding, and is often given by adult males to attract a female to a promising burrow. They also make other sounds, which are described as chucks, chattering, and screams. These sounds are usually accompanied by an up and down bobbing of the head. When alarmed, young birds will give a hissing call that sounds like a rattlesnake, a case of acoustic Batesian mimicry.

Taxonomy and systematics

The burrowing owl is sometimes separated in the monotypic genus Speotyto. This is based on an overall different morphology and karyotype. On the other hand, osteology and DNA sequence data suggests that the Burrowing Owl is just a terrestrial version of the Athene little owls, and it is today placed in that genus by most authorities.

A considerable number of subspecies have been described, but they differ little in appearance and the taxonomy of several needs to be validated. Most subspecies are found in/near the Andes and in the Antilles. Only A. c. hypugaea and A. c. floridana are found in North America. Although distinct from each other, the relationship of the Floridan subspecies to (and its distinctness from) the Caribbean birds is not quite clear:

  • A. c. cunicularia (Molina, 1782): Southern Burrowing Owl – Lowlands of S Bolivia and S Brazil south to Tierra del Fuego. Probably includes partridgei.
  • A. c. grallaria (Temminck, 1822): Brazilian Burrowing Owl – Central and E Brazil.
  • A. c. hypugaea (Bonaparte, 1825): Northern (or Western) Burrowing Owl – S Canada through Great Plains south to Central America.
  • A. c. floridana (Ridgway, 1874): Florida Burrowing Owl – Florida and Bahamas (Caribbean).
  • A. c. guadeloupensis (Ridgway, 1874): Guadeloupe Burrowing Owl – Formerly Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante Islands; extinct (c.1890).
  • A. c. amaura (Lawrence, 1878): Antiguan Burrowing Owl – Formerly Antigua, Saint Kitts, and Nevis Islands; extinct (c.1905).
  • A. c. troglodytes (Wetmore & Swales, 1886): Hispaniolan Burrowing Owl – Hispaniola, Gonâve Island, and Beata Island.
  • A. c. rostrata (C. H. Townsend, 1890): Revillagigedo Burrowing Owl – Isla Clarión, Revillagigedo Islands.
  • A. c. nanodes (Berlepsch & Stolzmann, 1892): Southwest Peruvian Burrowing Owl – SW Peru. Might include intermedia.
  • A. c. brachyptera (Richmond, 1896): Margarita Burrowing Owl – Isla Margarita. Might include apurensis.
  • A. c. tolimae (Stone, 1899): West Colombian Burrowing Owl – W Colombia. Might include carrikeri.
  • A. c. juninensis (Berlepsch & Stolzmann, 1902): South Andean Burrowing Owl – Andes from Central Peru to NW Argentina. Might include punensis.
  • A. c. punensis (Chapman, 1914): Puna Burrowing Owl – Altiplano region around Peruvian-Ecuadorian border. Doubtfully distinct from juninensis.
  • A. c. arubensis (Cory, 1915): Aruba Burrowing Owl – Aruba.
  • A. c. intermedia (Cory, 1915): West Peruvian Burrowing Owl – W Peru. Doubtfully distinct from nanodes.
  • A. c. minor (Cory, 1918): Guyanan Burrowing Owl – S Guyana and Roraima region.
  • A. c. carrikeri (Stone, 1922): East Colombian Burrowing Owl – E Colombia. Doubtfully distinct from tolimae.
  • A. c. pichinchae (Boetticher, 1929): West Ecuadorean Burrowing Owl – W Ecuador.
  • A. c. boliviana (L. Kelso, 1939): Bolivian Burrowing Owl – Bolivian altiplano.
  • A. c. apurensis (Gilliard, 1940): Venezuelan Burrowing Owl – NW Venezuela. Doubtfully distinct from brachyptera.
  • A. c. partridgei (Olrog, 1976): Corrientes Burrowing Owl – Corrientes Province, Argentina. Probably not distinct from cunicularia.
  • A. c. guantanamensis (Garrido, 2001): Cuban Burrowing Owl – Cuba and Isla de la Juventud.

A paleosubspecies, A. c. providentiae, has been described from fossil remains from the Pleistocene of the Bahamas. How these birds relate to the extant A. c. floridana - that is, whether they were among the ancestors of that subspecies, or whether they represented a more distant lineage that completely disappeared later - is unknown.

In addition, prehistoric fossils of similar owls have been recovered from many islands in the Caribbean (Barbuda, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Mona Island, and Puerto Rico). These birds became extinct towards the end of the Pleistocene, probably because of ecological and sea-level changes at the end of the last ice age rather than human activity. These fossil owls differed in size from present-day burrowing owls, and their relationship to the modern taxon has not been resolved.

Range and ecology

Before European colonization, burrowing owls probably inhabited every suitable area of the New World, but in North America they have experienced some restrictions in distribution since. However, in parts of South America they are expanding their range with deforestation.

They range from the southern portions of the western Canadian provinces through southern Mexico and western Central America. They are also found in Florida and many Caribbean islands. In South America, they are patchy in the northwest and through the Andes, but widely distributed from southern Brazil to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

Burrowing owls are year-round residents in most of their range. Birds that breed in Canada and northern USA usually migrate south to Mexico and southern USA during winter months.

This species is able to live for at least 9 years in the wild and over 10 years in captivity. They are often killed by vehicles when crossing roads, and have many natural enemies, including badgers, coyotes, and snakes. They are also killed by both feral and domesticated cats and dogs.

Food and feeding

The highly variable diet includes invertebrates and small vertebrates. But the Burrowing Owl mainly eats large insects and small rodents; invertebrate and vertebrate prey roughly make up one-third and two-thirds of the bulk of its diet, respectively. Although burrowing owls often live in close proximity to ground squirrels (Marmotini), they rarely prey upon them. Rodent prey is usually dominated of locally superabundant species like the Delicate Vesper Mouse (Calomys tener) in southern Brazil. Among squamates and amphibians, small lizards like the Tropical House Gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia), and frogs and toads predominate; generally, most vertebrate prey is in the weight class of several grams per individual. The largest prey items are usually birds, such as Zenaida doves which may weigh as much as a Burrowing Owl or even more.

As regards invertebrates, the Burrowing Owl seems less of a generalist. It is extemely fond of termites such as Termitidae, and Orthoptera such as Conocephalinae and Copiphorinae katydids, Jerusalem crickets (Stenopelmatidae) and true crickets (Gryllidae). But it shows some peculiar likes and dislikes. Bothynus and Dichotomius anaglypticus scarab beetles (Scarabaeidae) were eaten far more often than even closely related species by many Burrowing Owls across central São Paulo state (Brazil). Similarly, it was noted that among scorpions Bothriuridae were much preferred, among spiders Lycosidae (wolf spiders), and among millipedes (Diplopoda) certain Diplocheta. Small ground beetles (Carabidae) are eaten in quantity, while larger ones are much less popular as Burrowing Owl food; perhaps due to the vigorous defence the large species can put up.

Unlike other owls, they also eat fruits and seeds, especially the fruit of tasajillo (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) and other prickly pear and cholla cacti. On Clarión Island, where mammalian prey is lacking, they feed essentially on crickets and prickly pear fruit, adding Clarión Wrens (Troglodytes tanneri) and young Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura clarionensis) on occasion. When hunting they wait on a perch until they spot prey. Then they swoop down on prey or fly up to catch insects in flight. Sometimes they chase prey on foot across the ground.


The nesting season begins in late March or April in North America. Burrowing owls are usually monogamous, but occasionally a male will have two mates. Pairs of owls will sometimes nest in loose colonies. Their typical breeding habitat is open grassland or prairie, but they can occasionally adapt to other open areas like airports, golf courses, and agricultural fields. Burrowing owls are slightly tolerant of human presence, often nesting near roads, farms, homes, and regularly maintained irrigation canals.

The owls nest in an underground burrow, hence the name Burrowing Owl. They use burrows created by other burrowing animals such as prairie dogs, ground squirrels, or badgers. If burrows are unavailable and the soil is not hard or rocky, the owls may excavate their own. Burrowing owls will also nest in shallow, underground, man-made structures that have easy access to the surface.

During the nesting season, burrowing owls will collect a wide variety of materials to line their nest, some of which are left around the entrance to the burrow. The most common material is mammal dung, usually from cattle. At one time it was incorrectly thought that the dung helped to mask the scent of the juvenile owls, but researchers now believe the dung helps to control the microclimate inside the burrow and to attract insects, which the owls may eat.

The female will lay an egg every 1 or 2 days until she has completed a clutch, which can consist of 4-12 eggs (usually 9). She will then incubate the eggs for three to four weeks while the male brings her food. After the eggs hatch both parents will feed the chicks. Four weeks after hatching, the chicks are able to make short flights and begin leaving the nest burrow. The parents will still help feed the chicks for 1 to 3 months. While most of the eggs will hatch, only four to five chicks usually survive to leave the nest.

Site fidelity rates appear to vary among populations. In some locations, owls will frequently reuse a nest several years in a row. Owls in migratory northern populations are less likely to return to the same burrow every year. Also, as with many other birds, the female owls are more likely to disperse to a different site than are male owls.

Status and conservation

The burrowing owl is endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico, and a species of special concern in Florida and most of the western USA. It is common and widespread in open regions of many Neotropical countries, where they sometimes even inhabit fields and parks in cities. In regions bordering the Amazon Rainforest they are spreading with deforestation. It is therefore listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Burrowing owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. They are also included in CITES Appendix II.

The major reasons for declining populations in North America are control programs for prairie dogs and loss of habitat, although burrowing owls readily inhabit some anthropogenic landscapes, such as airport grasslands or golf courses. Genetic analysis of the two North American subspecies indicates that inbreeding is not a problem within those populations.

Where the presence of Burrowing Owls conflicts with development interests, a passive relocation technique has been applied successfully: rather than capturing the birds and transporting them to a new site (which may be stressful and prone to failure), the owls are half-coerced half-enticed to move on their own accord. The preparations need to start several months prior to the anticipated disturbance with observing the owl colony and noting especially their local movements and site preferences. After choosing a location nearby that has suitable ground and provides good Burrowing Owl breeding habitat, this new site is enhanced by adding burrows, perches, etc. Once the owls have accustomed to the changes and are found to be interested in the location - if any possible, this should be at the onset of spring, before the breeding season starts - they are hindered to enter the old burrows. A simple one-way trapdoor design has been described that is placed over the burrow for this purpose. If everything has been correctly prepared, the owl colony will move over to the new site in the course of a few nights at most. It will need to be monitored occasionally for the following months or until the major human construction nearby has ended.

In popular culture

In fiction

  • Carl Hiaasen's young adult novel Hoot (2002) is about a group of school kids trying to stop the planned construction of a pancake house that would go hand in hand with the destruction of the burrowing owls' habitat in a small town in Florida. Live burrowing owls were featured in the movie adaptation.

There is also a burrowing owl named Digger featured in the Guardians of Ga'hoole series by Kathryn Lasky. There are less prominent Burrowing Owls in the series: Dewlap, Kalo, Harry, Sylvana, and Myrtle.

In film

In music

  • The Philadelphia-based 1980s satirical pop punk band Dead Milkmen wrote "Stuart", a narrative song in which the narrator expresses incredulity at the sight of a neighbor kid looking for his pet "burrow owl" in a tree:

"Jumpin Jesus on a pogo stick. Everyone knows that a burrow owl lives in a hole in the ground! Why the hell do you think they call it a burrow owl, anyway?"

  • In addition to "Stuart", the burrowing owl has been included, sometimes subtly, at other times not, in other songs by the Dead Milkmen, including the repeated chanting of its name by high pitched voices in the background of the song "Smokin' Banana Peels".

In sports



  • Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern
  • (1956): The Birds of the Revilla Gigedo Islands, Mexico. Condor 58(2): 107-120. PDF fulltext DjVu fulltext
  • (2005): A simple one-way door design for passive relocation of Western Burrowing Owls. California Fish and Game 91: 286-289.
  • (2004): Density and abundance of burrowing owls in the agricultural matrix of the Imperial Valley, California. Studies in Avian Biology 27: 116-119. PDF fulltext
  • (2006): Species at Risk - Burrowing Owl Version of 2006-MAY-08. Retrieved 2007-AUG-16.
  • (1993): Burrowing owl (Speotyto cunicularia). In: (eds.): The Birds of North America 61. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA & American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. Online version, retrieved 2006-DEC-26. (requires subscription)
  • (1999): 155. Burrowing Owl. In: (1999): Handbook of Birds of the World (Volume 5: Barn-owls to Hummingbirds): 227-228, plate 17. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-25-3
  • (1999): Owls: A guide to the owls of the world. Yale University Press, New Haven. ISBN 0300079206
  • (2003): Status assessment and conservation plan for the western burrowing owl in the United States. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Technical Publication FWS/BTP-R6001-2003. US Dept of Interior, Washington, D.C. PDF fulltext
  • (2005): Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) population genetics: A comparison of North American forms and migratory habits. Auk 122(2): 464-478. [English with Spanish abstract] DOI:10.1642/0004-8038(2005)122[0464:BOACPG]2.0.CO;2 PDF fulltext
  • (2004): Use of dung as a tool by burrowing owls. Nature 431(7004): 39. PMID 15343324 PDF fulltext
  • (2005): Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia Owl Species ID: 220.040.000. Version of 2005-APR-24; retrieved 2006-DEC-26.
  • (1999): Philopatry and nest site reuse by burrowing owls: implications for productivity. Journal of Raptor Research 33: 149-153.
  • (2006): Relações tróficas entre cinco Strigiformes simpátricas na região central do Estado de São Paulo, Brasil [Comparative trophic ecology of five sympatric Strigiformes in central State of São Paulo, south-east Brazil]. Revista Brasileira de Ornitologia 14(4): 359-377 [Portuguese with English abstract]. PDF fulltext
  • (2005): A comparison of breeding season food habits of burrowing owls nesting in agricultural and nonagricultural habitat in Idaho. Journal of Raptor Research 39: 429-438. PDF fulltext
  • (1995): Passive relocation: A method to preserve burrowing owls on disturbed sites. Journal of Field Ornithology 66(11): 99-106. PDF fulltext DjVu fulltext

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