Burrowing owls

November 23, 2011 • 9:35 am

by Greg Mayer

Update: see below for additional owl photo.

These two inquisitive looking Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) form a fitting (but not quite as cute) follow up to  Jerry’s recent owl post.

Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) in Cape Coral, FL, November 18, 2011, by Gary Wood.

Burrowing owls nest in burrows in grasslands, and, unlike most owls, are active during the day. These two habits combine to make them excellent photographic subjects. James Bond (yes, the Bond, James Bond) wrote of them

When alarmed they have an amusing habit of bobbing up and down, during which performance they gaze intently at the intruder.

Burrowing owls are widely distributed in the western US and unforested parts of South America (e.g., the llanos and pampas). In the eastern US they are limited to Florida, and there are scattered populations in the West Indies. A number of West Indian populations have become extinct, some very recently and likely due to post-Columbian human activity, but others are known only from late Pleistocene fossils. The spotty distribution of the bird in the West Indies is evidently relictual due to post-Pleistocene loss of dry, grassland habitats, which would also leave them more vulnerable to human disturbance (e.g. introduced mongoose).

From Pregill and Olson (1981).

Reader Ben Goren has sent me the following lovely portrait of a burrowing owl at the Phoenix Zoo.

Burrowing owl at Phoenix Zoo, by Ben Goren.


Bond, J. 1936. Birds of the West Indies. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.

Bond, J. 1950. Check-List of Birds of the West Indies. 3rd ed. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.

Pregill, G.K. and S.L . Olson. 1981. Zoogeography of West Indian vertebrates in relation to Pleistocene climatic cycles. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 12:75-98. pdf

26 thoughts on “Burrowing owls

  1. If you’re in the Valley of the Sun, you can get a close-up cage-free view of burrowing owls at the Phoenix Zoo in their walk-in aviary. They’re absolutely gorgeous birds. And they will stare you down.



    1. Maybe you should bring Baihu over to the zoo and see what happens. Tell them he’s your seeing-eye cat or something…

      1. Sadly, I don’t think he’d make it past the primate exhibit at the entrance. You know? The one with all the screaming juvenile H. sapiens running around unrestrained? That’d be, like, his idea of the Seventh Circle. Well, at least the Sixth Circle….

        And, besides, they’d probably suspect he’s an escaped F. silvestris lybica and try to take him away from me, and that would not end well for anybody.

        But it is an interesting thought. Baihu’s got the mass and agility advantage over these owls, but the owls have those claws and that beak. Much fur and feathers would fly and much blood would be shed, but I rather suspect it wouldn’t take Baihu more than a minute or so to begin his meal — and it would keep him fed for at least a few days.



        1. I was thinking more of a staring contest. Merlyn is great at that.

          ***No animals were harmed in the making of this comment.***

          1. Oh. Um…er….

            Actually, Baihu doesn’t stare much. If he’s looking at you, he’s either making googly-eyes at you, watching you to time his escape attempt, or already mid-pounce (because you’re a fence lizard or a grasshopper) and he’ll be nomming you in only a second or so.


              1. Indeed, to listen to him as I type, you’d think that Baihu is the repressed peasant who was anointed by the moistened bint, so I better stop keeping him down so he can go outside and reign terror upon his demesnes.

                You might say the cat’s a complicated figure….


  2. Errr, I just got a very non work-safe advert appearing on WEIT between this article and the previous one!
    It was nearly as bad as some of the usual freethoughtblogs stuff.

  3. I found this 2:37 min HD quality stop motion video of Burrowing Owls by Mac Stone. Be warned ~ the music is terrible unless you’re into the Clampetts and such [It’s Poor Heart by Phish]. His notes:

    “These image sequences were all part of an effort to make a unique photograph of burrowing owls in their natural habitat. As diurnal birds, they spend most of the day outside their burrow keeping watch for predators. In order to get really close without scaring them, I placed my camera inside a road cone which they had grown accustomed to as a marker for their burrow. Leaving my camera in the cone-hide, I could let it cycle a photo every 2 seconds, offering a rare glimpse into the secret life of burrowing owls”

    His site Mac Stone Photography is a feast for the eyeballs.

    I’ve watched some other videos & they show the owls occasionally standing on one leg while on the ground [haven’t seen ’em do it on a perch]. Why would they stand on one leg?

    1. 1:22 is comical as is a couple of places where Mac has introduced a false pan downwards to reveal a pair of wide, yellow staring owl eyes ‘giving it back’ from the bottom of the frame ~ nice edits

      1:39 shows the pose I’m referring to.

    2. I guess standing on one leg rests the other. Masai who are standing guarding cattle often stand on one leg with the other foot resting on their knee.

      What I’d like to know is when do these little guys go and find something to eat? Standing around all day looking for predators doesn’t get a bird fed.

      1. Don’t birds ‘lock’ their legs so that they don’t use much muscle energy to perch? I think it’s unlikely that they get tired leg muscles like us apes

        My thought was that they hang around at (or near) ground level a lot so they’re selected for any attribute that increases the height of their eyes & ears from the ground ~ better able to detect predators & prey

        They seem to have long legs & body plus a very upright pose compared to your average owl. The heart will have to work harder to transport blood against gravity to warm the feet. Perhaps raising one undercarriage into the feathers is more energy efficient than standing on two legs, because the heart has less pumping to do & there’s less foot area radiating heat to the air

        What do you think?

      2. They do hunt during the day (grasshoppers, lizards, etc.), but equally or more at night, like any good owl. Here in CA they seem to like kangaroo rats (which are active only at night) and I’ve noticed that you can often tell an owl burrow by the multitude of kangaroo rat tails lying around the opening. I guess the tails aren’t choice chow.

        But, you have to be a little careful because kit foxes housekeep in the same way.

  4. “The spotty distribution of the bird in the West Indies is evidently relictual due to post-Pleistocene loss of dry, grassland habitats” – would the grasslands have been the low coastal plains swamped by post glacial rising seas?

  5. At present, two burrowing owls have returned to the artificial peninsula called “Caesar Chavez Park” in the Berkeley Marina. This is the site of a former garbage dump turned into a park. Until the Gold Rush, this area was regular deepwater, but silted in from hydraulic mining. The northeast corner of the Park has been mildly fenced to keep dogs out and allow the owls to be unmolested by people and (especially) off-leash canines (this is Berkeley, signs for dog etiquette are ignored).

    They have been visiting the area of SF Bay for years, and this Park for quite a few, too. The owls also visit the Farallone Islands, where they help diminish the rodent population; alas they favor the chicks of seabirds over rodents out there.

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