Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia)

Synonyms: Speotyto cunicularia
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderStrigiformes
FamilyStrigidae
GenusAthene (1)
SizeLength: 19 – 25 cm (2)
Top facts

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (2).

The burrowing owl is a small-bodied species, with a round head lacking ear tufts, striking lemon yellow eyes and unusually long legs (2). The plumage is mostly sandy brown on the upperparts with whitish spots on the body, while the face is adorned with bold whitish eyebrows and a prominent white chin stripe (2) (4). By contrast, the underparts are buffy white with brown barring. The female normally possesses darker plumage than the male (2).

The burrowing owl has a very large breeding range that extends throughout the Americas. It occurs from central and western Canada, south through central and western North America, Central America and South America as far as Tierra del Fuego, with vagrant individuals found as far afield as the Falkland Islands (1) (2). Within South America it is widespread, being absent only from parts of the Andes and the Amazon basin (4). Disjunct populations of this species also occur in Florida and on several islands in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Hispaniola, and off the west coast of Mexico (2), but it has become extinct on Antigua, Barbuda and Guadeloupe (1).

The burrowing owl occupies a range of open habitats, including grasslands, treeless plains, savanna and desert, usually in regions supporting a significant population of burrowing mammals (1) (2). Populations may also be found in settled areas, around golf courses, cemeteries, airports, vacant lots in residential areas, university campuses, and fairgrounds (2).

Probably the most distinctive feature of the burrowing owl is the fact that, unlike most owls, this species routinely nests and lives underground (2) (5). Although fully capable of excavating its own burrow, the burrowing owl most commonly occupies the abandoned burrows of mammals (2). In the northern part of its range it commonly uses the burrows of prairie dogs, while in South America, as noted by the famous naturalist Charles Darwin, it inhabits burrows made by large, rabbit-like rodents called viscachas (6). Interestingly, burrowing owls purposefully deposit piles of mammal dung around the entrance of their burrows. This unusual behaviour has been shown to be a method of baiting, as the dung attracts numerous dung beetles, which the owl then feeds upon (7). Aside from invertebrates, the burrowing owl will also take small mammals, birds and reptiles, either pursing its prey on foot or diving down upon it from the air or a perch (2). Outside the breeding season, this species rests in its burrow during the day and mainly hunts at dusk, during the night, and at dawn. During breeding, however, burrowing owls may forage at any point during the day or night (2) (4).

During the spring breeding season, burrowing owls form monogamous pairs, which maintain a small territory comprising the nesting burrow and the immediate surroundings. The female lays a clutch of up to 11 eggs, which are incubated for around one month, while the male brings food. In the initial period after hatching, the female remains with the young and is supported by the male, but as the young become more developed the female leaves the burrow and assists the male in foraging for food. After around 44 days the young leave the burrow and join the parent birds on hunting flights (2).

While many burrowing owl breeding pairs remain resident around a burrow throughout the year, individuals from Canada and the northern USA are migratory. At the end of the breeding season, pairs in these regions split up and fly south to overwinter, before returning in the following spring and establishing a new breeding pair with a different partner (2).

Despite the fact that on a global scale the burrowing owl is not considered to be threatened (1), in most of the states or provinces that this species occurs it is listed as Endangered, Threatened or a Species of Special Concern (4). The reason for this apparent discrepancy is that, by virtue of its expansive range, this species has a very large overall population (1), but as a result of habitat destruction, pesticide poisoning and vehicle collisions, it is undergoing a worrying decline in many localities (2).

A number of local conservation initiatives have been implemented within North America and Canada to conserve the burrowing owl. Programmes have included the use of artificial breeding burrows to encourage population growth in safe areas, increased protection of burrowing mammals that provide nesting habitat, and campaigns to promote the cessation of pesticide use in the vicinity of this species’ burrows. Reintroductions have also been attempted in regions where populations have previously been extirpated, such as British Colombia (2).

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  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Haug, E.A., Millsap, B.A. and Martell, M.S. (1993) Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). In: Poole, A. (Ed) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca.
  3. The Owl Pages (April, 2009)
    http://www.owlpages.com/owls.php?genus=Athene&species=cunicularia
  4. Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society (May, 2009)
    http://www.scvas.org/index.php?page=text&id=bowl
  5. Gould, J. and Darwin, C.R. (1839) Birds Part 3 No. 2 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Smith Elder and Co, London. Available at:
    http://darwin-online.org.uk
  6. Levey, D.J., Duncan, R.S. and Levins, C.F. (2004) Use of dung as a tool by burrowing owls. Nature, 43: 39 - .