Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)

Burrowing Owl

There is some debate as to whether the Burrowing Owl belongs to the genus Athene (making it a close relation of the Little Owl) or is distinct enough to warrant its own genus Speotyto. Cunicularius is the Latin word for a miner, a reference to it nesting underground.

The Burrowing Owl is native throughout most the Americas stretching into Canada, the main exception being the Amazon rainforests & the eastern side of North America. The population of Burrowing Owls is declining in the US, they are listed as a species of Federal Special Concern. They are classified as endangered in Canada. The birds from the more northern regions are migratory over the winter months. They tend to inhabit open grasslands & large agricultural regions & desert regions, using disused burrows of prairie dogs & ground squirrels for roosting & nesting. In areas where these are not available, pipes & nest boxes may be used.

Similar to the prairie dogs, they will nest in small colonies & will alert each other to approaching danger and will act together to drive off the threat.

At one time it was believed that prairie dogs, rattlesnakes & burrowing owls would share the same holes, this is now known not to be true. Snakes would eat both the prairie dogs & the owls, similarly the owls would eat the young of the prairie dogs & the snakes. One possible reason for the belief that burrowing owls & rattlesnakes share the same hole could be the fact that when threatened, young burrowing owls make a sound that is very similar to the sound made by rattlesnakes.

Burrowing owls are active during the daytime but are mainly crepuscular (dusk/dawn) hunters. When they have young they will hunt throughout the full 24hr period. They have a wide variety of prey, depending on the time of year & location, eating anything from small insects, through small reptiles, scorpions, to young rabbits & small birds & bats. Unusually for raptors, Burrowing Owls will also eat fruit & seeds. They will hunt by using short flights, running along the ground, hovering or still hunting from a raised perch.

In prairie & semi-desert regions, where there are grazing cattle, the owls will often collect dry dung & leave it around the openings to their burrows. This tends to attract dung beetles, which constitute a large part of the diet of burrowing owls in those regions.

Burrowing owls also have a habit of collecting inedible items, such as bits of foil & plastic. These are saved in, or near to, their burrows. To-date, no one has come up with a reasonable idea of why they do this - one suggestion it is similar to the male bower birds habit of collecting flowers, stones & shiny objects to attract a mate, but there is no supporting evidence for this.

Breeding occurs between March & August, around 7-9 eggs are laid. Incubation takes around four weeks & the young are able to fly at about 4 weeks old.

Mythology & Folklore :

The American Indian Hopi tribe called the Burrowing Owl Ko'ko, meaning 'Watcher of the Dark'. They believed it to be associated with Masauu, their god of the dead, the guardian of fires & protector of all things underground, including germinating seeds, making it a very sacred bird. As the owl lives underground, it was believed to be able to communicate with the dead.

The American Indian Gosiute tribe (from Utah and Nevada) believed the Burrowing Owl to be a protective spirit for brave warriors. Owl feathers were worn by the warriors & rattles were covered in owl skins, to frighten off their enemies.

IUCN Red List Status :

Least Concern (LC)

AOU Data :

Species Number : 378.0
Alpha Code : BUOW
Common Name : Burrowing Owl
Longevity Record : 9yrs 0months

Also Called :

Ground Owl
Prairie Dog Owl
Howdy Owl
Cuckoo Owl
Tunnel Owl
Gopher Owl
Hill Owl
Rattlesnake Owl (from the noise made by the young, when threatened)
Dutch Holenuil
French Chevêche des terriers
Russian Кроликовая Сова (Krolikovaya Sova)
German Kanincheneule
Spanish Mochuelo de madriguera
Swedish Prärieuggla
Dominican Republic Cucu

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