Burrowing owl

COMMON NAME: Burrowing owl

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Athene cuniculari

A small owl, about eight inches tall with long bare legs, no ear tufts, and a small facial disc. The adults are dusty brown with white markings on the belly and a prominent white chin stripe. The young are brown on the head, back, and wings, with a white belly and chest. They molt into an adult-like plumage during their first summer.

Breeds west of the Mississippi River from southern Canada throughout the western United States south through Mexico and into South America. A separate subspecies is found in Florida and the Caribbean Islands. Birds from the northern part of the United States and Canada are migratory, although their winter home is unknown.

An owl of dry, short-grass prairie, burrowing owls are associated with
burrowing mammals, particularly prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and badgers.

Burrowing owls nest underground in abandoned burrows dug by mammals or, if soil conditions allow, they will dig their own burrows. They also use human-made nest boxes placed underground. They can have up to 11 young, although three to six seems to be more common.

Burrowing owls feed on a wide variety of prey, changing food habits as location and time of year determine availability. Insects, small rodents, lizards, and birds are the most common prey items.

A burrowing owl reintroduction program was started in 1985, and has continued to release young owls every summer since. Young owls trapped in South Dakota are relocated to western Minnesota in hopes of reestablishing a breeding population to Minnesota. Population status monitoring and natural history studies are underway in Western Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota.

An endangered species in Minnesota, the burrowing owl is rarely seen in this state. In other parts of the country, its numbers seem to be declining due to loss of prairie habitat.