I have a surprise for you: there’s an owl that lives underground.
AND IT’S SO CUTE!!!!
This little owl is a burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia). Burrowing owls are small, slender birds with long legs. They weigh only 4 – 7 ounces (113 – 198 grams) and are about 8 inches (20 cm) long. In fact, burrowing owls are one of the smallest owls around. You can find burrowing owls from southern Canada to the tip of Argentina, typically on the western side of North and South America. There’s also a population in southern Florida (which you may remember if you ever read the book Hoot) and in the Caribbean.
Here’s a cute fact: when spotted by humans, burrowing owls bob up and down. This is where they get their nickname of ‘Howdy Owl’ from – they look like they’re saying hello!
Hunting in the day
Burrowing owls are one of the only diurnal owls, which means they’re active during the day. Still, they tend to be crepuscular in their behavior, concentrating their hunting during dawn and dusk.
Also unlike other owls, burrowing owls usually stick close to the ground when hunting, running and hopping after insects and small mammals. They’ll also sometimes hover over the ground when looking for tasty food. When nesting, males will bring their female mates food while they’re taking care of eggs and hatchlings.
To supplement their hunting, burrowing owls sometimes rely on ‘home delivery’ – by scattering the entrance of their burrow with scat, they can attract insects and beetles straight to their home. This manure has the added benefit of masking a burrowing owl’s scent from predators.
Of course, being awake during the day also means looking out for daytime predators like hawks. But even when threatened, burrowing owls stick close to the ground. They will run to their burrows or flatten themselves against the dirt when feeling threatened by predators. Burrowing owls will also make a sound very similar to a rattlesnake to scare off potential dangers.
Finding a home
Burrowing owls live in vast open areas with sparse vegetation. As you might have guessed from their name, burrowing owls don’t need trees to nest in; instead, they live underground in burrows.
How they get these burrows depends on where they live. Burrowing owls in southern Florida typically make their own burrows. A breeding pair can dig a 10-foot-long tunnel in just two days!
Most other populations of burrowing owls don’t dig their own homes, although they will perform routine maintenance. Instead, they take over burrows abandoned by other animals, like badgers, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs.
Built for the underground
Like other animals discussed on this blog (i.e., naked mole-rats), burrowing owls are adapted to living underground and share many adaptations seen in other ground-dwelling creatures. For example, burrowing owls can withstand much higher carbon dioxide levels than other birds.
Burrowing owls also use parts of their burrows to store food for later consumption. One burrowing owl cache contained more than 200 dead rodents!
The next time you’re out in Arizona, look at the ground. Maybe you’ll see a burrowing owl bobbing its head ‘hello’ to you!