These interesting little owls have a seemingly unlikely home: They live underground in burrows. These owls will usually claim a gopher tortoise burrow or prairie dog burrow that has been abandoned, but they can dig their own in about two days. These burrows can be found in large, open fields such as airports, golf courses, and land that has been cleared for development.
The average height of an adult is between 7½ to 9 inches tall and weighs between 3 and 4 oz. They are about the size of a robin. Their wingspan averages 22 inches. They do not have the ear tufts that one would normally expect to see on an owl. They have large yellow eyes and long legs. The males are larger than the females. Their plumage is brown with white spots and bars. Their faces and/or eyes are framed in white, and their beak is a green or yellow-green color.
They feed on insects, lizards, mice, frogs and roadkill. Burrowing owls are diurnal – they hunt for food both in the day as well as at night. Once an owl has captured its prey, he/she tears it up or will swallow it whole, as they are unable to chew. Most of this food is digested except the bones, feathers, fur and shells of insects. The undigested pieces are made into a tight oval ball (a little larger than a pea) and spit up.
Burrowing owls can be found from the southern provinces of Canada southward toward southern California and Texas. Owls from these locations spend their winters in the southern United States. There is a large population in Cape Coral, Florida where there are estimated to be over 1,000 nesting pairs! Cape Coral even holds an annual “Burrowing Owl Festival”!
Nesting season is mid-February through mid-July. The female will lay 8-12 eggs over a 2-3 week period. This means that they hatch their young asynchronously. Males line the tunnel and nest chamber with dried flowers, leaves and even dry feces. This lining helps keep the burrow cool during the day and warm during the night. During nesting, males have been known to decorate the entrance to the females’ nest with brightly colored objects and shiny objects. While owlets are still in their nest, they have been known to mimic a rattlesnake to scare away a predator.
||The Burrowing owl has many predators. Snakes may dig up or enter the burrows; eating the eggs, owlets, or adult female. Hawks, larger owls, domestic cats and dogs are also predators. Burrowing owls perch on nearby posts, signs, or man-made perches for a better vantage point to see possible predators. The mortality rate of a one-year old Burrowing owl is 19%, while the average lifespan of a Burrowing owl is three years. The number one cause of death for these owls is collisions with cars.
Burrowing owls in Florida have been declared a “Species of Special Concern”. They are also protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is unlawful to harass, disturb or feed a burrowing owl. It is also unlawful to disturb the burrow in which they live.
I discovered that my neighborhood FPL substation had a pair of burrowing owls after seeing an owl on my corner stop sign during several of my night-time runs. Armed with a flashlight, my daughter and I tried to get a good look at the owl and “Google” it. My brother suggested it may be a “ground owl”, and that Google search yielded a picture of an owl that my daughter immediately recognized as our mystery owl. The information we read told us to look for burrows in a wide open area and the FPL substation seemed the perfect locale. It took a few days, but we were right. That was last summer. Since then, we have observed these charming little owls nearly every day. After not seeing one of the owls for nearly two weeks, I began to worry that something had happened to it. On March 1st I pulled in to check on them and just barely caught the sight of two little ones ducking underground. The next day I discovered there were three owlets. And one of them was learning how to fly. Several days later, another baby emerged; bringing the total so far to four owlets.
Burrowing owl links:
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife