By Aniko Drlik-Muehleck
Sighting an owl is a rare and thrilling experience given their nocturnal behavior–they’re silent, reclusive characters that only come out at night in search of prey. Or so you thought. In fact, right here in the Bay Area we live alongside a curious little fellow you’re likely to see in the daytime! But sadly, the Western Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia hypagaea, is no longer a common sight during the night or day. As grassy prairies turn to urban sprawl, their numbers dwindle. Thankfully, concerned bird lovers are taking action to rebuild burrowing owl habitat. Learning a bit about these unorthodox owls might motivate you to join in!
Long, lanky legs distinguish this 7-10 inch tall bird from other small owls. As it stands guard outside its burrow you’ll notice its elevated viewpoint. If you can pick it out that is: the burrowing owl’s sandy brown colored back and barred cream and coffee chest make it difficult to spot in the dry California grasses. Its beady yellow eyes and white eyebrows might pop out at you though. Females tend to be smaller and darker than males.
Although the burrowing owl will occasionally pounce on little birds and reptiles, it mostly gets its protein fix from unsuspecting rodents and insects (the Jerusalem cricket is one of its favorites). It spends the day hopping or gliding around in search of tasty buggy morsels.
Mating and Life Cycle
To acquire a mate for the breeding season (February through August) males strut around cooing and displaying their flashy white markings until an impressed female accepts his offer. The couple then head off to the burrow to begin their family–laying 6-12 eggs one day apart. The mother incubates the eggs for a month until they hatch at which point the father takes over primary care of the newborn chicks. Six weeks later, the newcomers have fledged and are ready to leave the burrow.
Habitat and Range
Don’t be misled by the burrowing owl’s name: these little guys don’t actually create their own burrows. Instead, they prefer to take over abandoned ground squirrel holes in open fields with low, dry vegetation. Burrowing owls range from Canada to Panama and the Mississippi River to the West Coast. In California, suitable habitat is rapidly shrinking due to intrusive human behavior. The grading, disking, and tilling of soil necessary for urban and agricultural expansion eliminates burrows and forces owls out.
What Can You Do?
Although it requires a bit of digging, installing artificial burrows can bring burrowing owls back to their disrupted habitat. With a few basic items (Five gallon bucket, four inch tubing, and some two gallon flower pots), many groups around the Bay Area have created new homes for displaced owls. If you’re interested in getting involved, contact a nearby bird or burrowing owl organization (The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network has some useful links). Participating in a bird count also aids with burrowing owl monitoring.
Top photo by Max Allen, bottom two by Alan And Elaine Wilson.