Owl Awareness Day: Burrowing Owl

Today is a day to celebrate owls on a worldwide scale. Scientists have gathered a lot of data on these predators, but there is still so much left to discover. Today on International Owl Day we highlight the burrowing owl.

Burrowing owls (Athene Cunicularia) live on grasslands and in desert habitat in Nevada as well as many parts of North and South America. Their standing height is 8.5-11 inches and their wingspan can be as large as 2 feet in length.  Despite this relatively large wingspan, they weigh in at only 6-8 ounces, less than a can of soda!  You can find them in many different elevations in Nevada, from Death Valley (200 feet below sea level) to 9,000 feet above sea level! If you see a owl with really long legs, chances are it's a burrowing owl.

As the name would suggest, burrowing owls live underground.  When you picture an owl home, you likely imagine a nest up in a tree.  For example, great horned owls take up residence high in the trees in old red-tailed hawk nests. In contrast, burrowing owls inhabit underground burrows that are built by other critters, such as badgers and gophers.  Habitat loss and rodenticides can be a real problem for these owls.  Anthropogenic activity like housing development continues to reduce the available habitat for this species.  Rat poison kills owl prey and exposes them to toxic chemicals that may kill the owls as well.  In addition, killing off rodents means fewer burrows for the owls to live in.

One of the things that makes this owl especially unique is that it is common to catch a glimpse of them hunting during the light of day. So what's on their lunch plate? Burrowing owls eat a variety of foods including small mammals (mice, ground squirrels, gophers) and arthropods (scorpions, grasshoppers, beetles). Like many birds of prey they provide a critical ecosystem service - keeping rodent populations balanced.

It is important that we keep wildlife like burrowing owls in mind when we plan for new development in Nevada. Ideally, these birds would have large tracts of undisturbed habitat, but they can do well within developed areas as long as we make certain provisions to accommodate them. The Boy Scouts of America have installed man-made burrows in areas where burrowing owl habitat has been depleted. Now that is what being a good neighbor is all about!

To find out more about burrowing owls, head over to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website. Their "All About Birds" web page has amazing resources, such as audio clips and videos.

Here at Know Your Neighbors we hope that you stay curious about your wildlife neighbors... like the burrowing owl!

Korinna Domingo

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