The Burrowing Owl is a small, uncommon, earless owl that inhabits wide-open prairie habitats. It habitually stands erect on the ground or fence posts where its lightly-feathered and long legs, short tail, and knock-kneed stance give it a gangly long-legged appearance. Its plumage is an overall dark sandy color, with lighter underparts barred with brown, and is profusely spotted with white on the head, back, and wings. It has inconspicuous facial disks. In flight, its wings are relatively long and narrow, making it appear smaller than when perched. Its eyes have a bright yellow iris.
There are 4 recognized subspecies of this owl, two of which reside in North America:
Athene cunicularia floridana - restricted to Florida
Athene cunicularia hypugaea - range as described above, exclusive of Florida.
The Burrowing Owl nests and roosts in underground burrows, a unique behavior in owls. It flies with irregular, jerky wing beats that somewhat resemble an American Kestrel. It frequently makes long glides, interspersed with rapid wing beats. It hovers during hunting and courtship, and may flap its wings asynchronously. The Burrowing Owl is an opportunistic feeders that hunts at any time of the day or night by searching for prey either while perched on soil mounds around its burrow or on a fence post. The owl often pounces on prey it spots from a perch after a direct flight. When hunting while in flight, this owl may hover over tall or dense vegetation. The Burrowing Owl also dashes down insects on the wing and chases them down on foot. It carries most prey in its beak. Large insects captured with its beak in flight are transferred to its talons in mid-air. The owl carries all prey back to a burrow to eat or store it. This owl also circles around large mammals, waiting for them to stir up its prey.
Northern populations are migratory, with individual exceptions, whereas central and southern populations are year-round residents. Some Burrowing Owls, especially males, return to their previous nest burrow but others disperse to new areas. Reforming of pairs in consecutive years is less common than in other owls. This owl is the most gregarious of all owls, being quite tolerant of other Burrowing Owls and even nesting semi-colonially in some sites. Breeding densities have reached as high as 1 pair/9 acres (3.5 hectares). Home ranges around nest sites range from 35 to 1,200 acres (0.14 to 4.8 square kilometers). They sometimes nest within active prairie dog or ground squirrel colonies.
This owl is known to live for at least 9 years in the wild and over 10 years in captivity. Mortality rates are not well-known but this owl is often killed by vehicles when crossing roads. It is also preyed on by larger owls, hawks, falcons, badgers, skunks, ferrets, armadillos, snakes, and domestic cats and dogs.
When this owl notices something unusual it begins to bob its body, swivels its head back and forth, and gives a warning call. When directly threatened it either flies away a short distance to another perch or retreats into its burrow.
North America - Breeds from south-central British Columbia, southeastern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, southwestern Manitoba, south through eastern Washington, central Oregon and California to Baja California, east to western Minnesota, northwestern Iowa, eastern Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas south to southwestern Louisiana; also resident in Florida. Winters generally throughout the breeding range but variably migratory in northern parts of its range. Generally present year-round in southern parts of the United States.
The Burrowing Owl also occurs locally in Central and South America south to Tierra del Fuego, and on Cuba, Hispaniola, the lesser Antilles, Bahama Islands, and on islands in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Mexico.
The Burrowing Owl is the 11th largest owl in North America. Females are slightly larger than males. Lengths average 10 inches (25 centimeters) for females and 9 inches (23 centimeters) for males. Wingspans average about 23 inches (58 centimeters) for females and males. Weights average 7.5 ounces (214 grams) for females and 7.2 ounces (203 grams) for males.
The Burrowing Owl is difficult to confuse with any other bird. The Short-eared Owl is another owl that perches on the ground and fence posts in open areas, but it sits horizontally, rather than erect, and has broad wings and obvious facial disks.
It is also known as Billy Owl, Ground Owl, Prairie Dog Owl, Rattlesnake Owl, Snake Owl, Howdy Owl, Cuckoo Owl, Tunnel Owl, Gopher Owl, Hill Owl, La Chouette À Terrier De L'Ouest (Western Burrowing Owl), and Lechucilla Llanera (Little Barn Owl of the Fields).
The Latin name Speotyto cunicularia translates into "cave owl miner" which refers to its habit of nesting and roosting underground. The recent name change in genus Speotyto to Athene translates from Greek mythology to the goddess of wisdom and war. The owl was her favorite bird which was associated from her primitive role as goddess of the night.
The Hopis Indians see this owl as their god of the dead, the guardian of fires, and tender of all underground things, including seed germination. The Dakota Hidatsa Indians regarded the Burrowing Owl as a protective spirit for brave warriors. Zuni legend tells of how this owl got its speckled plumage: the owls spilled white foam on themselves during a ceremonial dance because they were laughing at a coyote that was trying to join the dance. European immigrants thought it would ring its own neck if a person circled the owl. Contrary to some popular belief, this owl does not cohabit peacefully with prairie dogs or rattlesnakes.
The Burrowing Owl features prominently in the popular young adult novel, Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.