Friday, December 7, 2012

Owl of the Week: Burrowing Owl

My sincere apologies for leaving the Burrowing Owl out of my Owl of the Week series.  They were in the original list, but somehow I skipped over their place between the Eastern Screech Owl and the Long-Eared Owl.  But make no mistake, these little owls are awesome and well-worth an entire page of this blog.
First, a description:  Burrowing Owls are on the small end of things, weighing just half a pound with a wingspan up to two feet.  They're tall and lanky, with long, unfeathered legs below a rounded body.  They are tuftless owls with moderate facial discs.  Adults are brown with white speckles; juveniles are similar, but less speckly and more buff-colored on the chests.
Burrowing Owls live in open areas west of the Mississippi River from Canada to Argentina, including grasslands, pasturelands and croplands, as well as golf courses and parks and the like.  They live underground in burrows, hence their common name.  Also, the second part of their Latin name (Athene cunicularia) is Greek for "rabbit burrow".  In many of the regions they inhabit, the soils are soft enough for the owls to dig their own burrows, but in Colorado, where the soils are famously hard and rocky, they rely on the abandoned burrows of other animals (more on this later).  They are aggressively territorial about the small area around the burrow, but generally willing to share the larger hunting grounds.

Burrowing Owl family in burrow -
For hunting, they're surprisingly diverse.  They're neither diurnal nor nocturnal, but some blend of crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and insomniac.  In fact, they're active all day and night, taking naps as necessary.  During the day they hunt insects, and at night they catch small mammals like mice.  To accomplish this, they mostly run around on the ground on their stilty legs, or they hunt from low perches like fence posts.  Also--and this is a piece of information I will totally use against my fellow Educational Ambassador Burrowing Owl--they are the only owls to eat fruits and nuts.  Yep, Burrowing Owls are slightly omnivorous, and are partial to cactus fruits, like those of the prickly pear.  My neighbor is never going to live that down.

Juvenile Burrowing Owls -
Burrowing Owls are also unique in their vocalizations, and are excellent mimics.  In addition to a high, repetitive "hoot", they have a short barking alarm call like that of a prairie dog, a shaky hiss that's exactly like a rattlesnake rattle, and a variety of other noises.  The Educational Burrowing Owl at the RMRP has recently picked up the scream of the Common Barn Owl, choosing to use it on small children who get too close.  Here a link to their "hoot", and the very last sound on this page is the rattlesnake imitation. 

As for their status, the health of Burrowing Owl populations varies by locations.  In areas with soft soils, they tend to be doing better because they can dig their own burrows.  But out here, where the soils are hard and rocky, they are utterly dependent on Prairie Dogs to provide homes.  This is a problem as Prairie Dog towns are continually being eradicated in Colorado and other Great Plains states.  For Burrowing Owls, it's enough of a problem to place them on Colorado's Threatened Species list.  Populations are diminishing, and will continue to do so until Humans decide to leave room for Prairie Dogs in this state.

Burrowing Owl and Prairie Dog -
Burrowing Owls come in to the RMRP pretty infrequently, usually the victims of car stirkes or barbed-wire fence entanglement.  As always, the RMRP provides the best care possible for these birds so they can rejoin their wild populations, and it's your donations that keep this work going!
Alright, this is the end of the Owl of the Week series (for real this time).  Thank you so much for your readership.  If you appreciate the raptors we save and the educational work we do (including this blog), please consider donating using the link above.  Otherwise, I hope to see you at the Open House this Sunday! 

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