Burrowing Owl

Athene cunicularia
Population status:
Least Concern
Body length:
7-1/2 to 10 inches (17-25 cm)
21-24 inches (53-60 cm)
4-1/2 to 9 ounces (127-255 g)
Burrowing Owl wing spread

Judi Dressler

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Did you know?

  • Unlike most other owls, Burrowing Owls are active during the day and at night. They tend to hunt insects in daylight and small mammals under the cover of darkness.
  • Burrowing Owls rely on some mammals to help them survive. Ground squirrels, prairie dogs and other digging mammals create the holes, or burrows, that Burrowing Owls use to roost and nest in.
  • The scientific name for Burrowing Owl is Athene cunicularia. Athene refers to the Greek goddess of wisdom, whose favorite bird was an owl. The Latin word cunicularia, means a miner or burrower. Thus, its scientific name could be translated as "wise burrower."


Other Owls

How The Peregrine Fund is helping

The Peregrine Fund is not working directly with Burrowing Owls, but our conservation efforts through habitat protection, education, and community outreach extend to all raptor species, including this tiny owl. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.

Where they live

The Burrowing Owl is a New World species that can be found in southwestern Canada, across the western United States and into Florida, throughout Central America, on some Caribbean islands, and in most of South America. Despite their extensive range through Central and South America – areas with naturally dense tropical forests – Burrowing Owls are not a forest species. Like the Aplomado Falcon, they prefer drier, more open areas that can include prairies, grasslands, and savannas. But Burrowing Owls don't stop there! They can also be found living in deserts, farmlands, and even golf courses and other urban areas, such as city parks. In Socorro, New Mexico, there have been reports of the owls living in a grassy patch along an interstate on-ramp!

As their name suggests, Burrowing Owls roost and nest in holes or burrows usually dug by small mammals, such as prairie dogs, badgers, and ground squirrels.

Like many other raptors, Burrowing Owls that live in the northern part of their range are migratory, moving to warmer climates in search of prey when the cold north winter sets in.

What they do

Behaviorally speaking, the Burrowing Owl is pretty unique among the owls. Unlike most other owls who are mainly active at night, Burrowing Owls are active during they day as well. They can be seen walking around, preening, or simply standing in small groups in front of a burrow entrance at just about any time of the day. However, they do reserve most of their hunting activities for the dusk and dawn hours.

While most owls tend to be solitary creatures, the Burrowing Owl is quite social. This small raptor lives among others of its own species in loose groups of up to several hundred individuals. Burrowing Owls also may live among other animal species, as well. In some parts of their range, they live side by side with prairie dogs in what are known as prairie dog towns.

The Burrowing Owl is also quite unique in its nesting habits. While some owl species nest on the ground, the Burrowing Owl is the only one that actually nests underground in holes dug mainly by burrowing mammals.

All owls have many types of vocalizations and use alarm calls to warn other members of their species of potential danger or to scare off predators, but when young Burrowing Owls get scared, they emit an alarm call that sounds something like a rattlesnake! This is an interesting adaptation for survival, as certainly any predator hearing what they think is a rattlesnake will be cautious before getting too close.

Why they need our help

Burrowing Owls may be moving into some new open spaces that are created as forests are cut down, but for the most part this species is losing much of its native habitat. As a result, it is disappearing from some of its historic range. Many areas in their natural habitat are being developed for human use, which leaves these owls little room in which to live.

Though Burrowing Owls may at times excavate their own burrows, they rely mainly on burrows dug by other animals for roosting and nesting sites. So, it only stands to reason that programs to eliminate prairie dogs and other burrowing mammals are affecting the populations of these long-legged owls, too. After all, if there are no mammals to help dig the holes that these owls use for nesting, they will soon run out of good nesting spots and this will most certainly have a negative effect on the population as a whole. Protecting Burrowing Owls will protect their habitats and all the other wildlife that lives there, too.

What they eat

Burrowing Owls hunt in the evening and early morning hours. They like to watch from a perch, waiting for their prey to appear. Because these owls are small and their prey is small, they can afford to sit on relatively low perches as they scout for a meal. You may see them sitting atop a dirt mound, a rock, or perhaps a fence post. Even a little bit of height gives them an advantage and helps them spot prey more easily.

These owls have a variety of techniques for catching their dinner. They may fly up to catch an insect in mid-air or fly down to pounce on an unsuspecting rodent. They may even chase after their prey on foot. In open fields, Burrowing Owls have a lot of prey to choose from and they have been documented feeding on termites, beetles, crickets, and other insects, as well as frogs, lizards, rodents, and small birds. According to some sources, they may even feed occasionally on cactus fruit and seeds!

Nest, eggs and young

Burrowing Owls can nest in loose colonies of up to 100 individuals or more. They prefer to nest in open areas, such as prairies and grasslands, and, if left alone, they even tolerate being close to humans. They have been documented nesting on golf courses, at airports, in city parks, and along roadsides. Though they usually nest inside the burrows dug by other animals, Burrowing Owls do enhance their nest sites by bringing all sorts of materials to the nest or to nest entrance. One of the most interesting things they bring is animal dung, which they often leave close to the nest entrance. Biologists believe that animal dung, among other things, helps attract insects to the nest entrance, giving the owls easy access to a quick meal.

Female Burrowing Owls may lay up to a dozen eggs in a clutch. These eggs are incubated for about one month. After the chicks hatch, both parents bring them food and help raise them. It takes the chicks another four to six weeks before they are ready to fledge, or fly for the first time. Though most of the eggs will hatch, usually only about half the chicks will survive to fledge.

When they are about a year old, Burrowing Owls will be able to find a mate and produce young of their own.

Idaho Connection

Burrowing Owls can be found in many areas throughout Idaho, particularly in southern Idaho. One of the best places to see these owls is in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, located about 30 minutes away from The Peregrine Fund's headquarters in Boise.

Burrowing Owl and The World Center for Birds of Prey

The visitor center at our World Center for Birds of Prey includes owls among its avian ambassadors, including a Verreaux's Eagle Owl. This is a great chance to see owls up close and learn about the wonderful and interesting adaptations they have in order to survive in their respective habitats. There is also a touch table with owl feathers and other natural objects available for exploration.