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A Real Hoot
Meet the burrowing owl, Frank Sinatra of the owl clan

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Southwest Wildlife

A Real Hoot

Meet the burrowing owl, the Frank Sinatra of the owl clan.

by Jay W. Sharp

The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) reminds me of Frank Sinatra, not because of an extraordinary voice, but because it does things its own way — often leaving a trail of confused ornithologists in its wake. For instance, it comes in such variations that estimates of the number of subspecies — scattered from Canada southward to South America's Tierra del Fuego — range from 15 to 25. More or less.

Western burrowing owl on the ground, where the bird spends much of its time. (Photos by Jay W. Sharp)

Like its fellow subspecies, the western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea), which calls the western United States, including New Mexico, home, hoots to its own drummer. For instance, some western burrowing owls migrate, some don't. Those that do migrate usually seek out their own personal winter owl resorts. Some return the following spring. Others may wait several years to return. A small loose colony may choose a common summer location instead of another equally suitable location apparently just because of individual whim. Some may choose a mate before they return, some after. Birds that do not migrate — typically, in the study population at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, mature males — often just hang around their home burrows throughout the year.

Given a choice, the western burrowing owl — the only one of our owl species that nests underground — will often appropriate the lair of its long-time evolutionary partner, the colonial prairie dog. Otherwise it may choose from an array of burrows of more solitary mammals such as the black-tailed jackrabbit, desert cottontail, rock squirrel, gopher, badger or skunk.


Distinctive Features

One of the smaller members of its taxonomic family, the western burrowing owl, when mature, measures about 9 to 10 inches in length and about 21 inches in wingspan, according to Stan Tekiela's Birds of New Mexico Field Guide. Typically, it weighs only five to six ounces, according to E.A. Haug, B.A. Millsap and M.S. Martell in Birds of North American Online. Male and female adults have very similar plumage.

Usually, when perched, the adult western burrowing owl shows a brownish-colored back and crown with buff-colored spots and bars; it has a buff-colored breast with brownish-colored spots and bars. Its tail is relatively short, rounded and brownish with buff-colored bars. Its legs are relatively long and sparsely feathered. It has a rounded face with disproportionately large eyes, bold whitish "eyebrows," a grayish-brown raptor-shaped beak, brown and buff throat patches, and no ear tufts. The owl has forward-facing eyes with bright yellow irises.

Western burrowing owl in a mesquite.

According to Martha Hansen of the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, the western burrowing owl, like other owls, has several distinctive features that facilitate seeing and hearing prey. For instance, its tubular-shaped — rather than spherical — eyes have many more cones than rods; this enhances night vision. Unable to move its tubular-shaped eyes in their sockets, the bird has extra neck vertebrae — twice as many as a human — that allow it to swivel its head some 280 degrees; this yields a wide field of view. It has asymmetrically placed ears, which means that a sound reaches both ears with precise simultaneity only when the owl has its head exactly oriented; this helps the bird lock in on prey.

Although scarcely as melodic as Sinatra, the burrowing owl has an array of vocalizations, according to Haug, Millsap and Martell. The adult burrowing owl can produce 13 different calls; even the young owl has three different calls. For example, an adult male calls coo coooo when wooing a female. A responsive adult female responds with a smack! The male coo coooos romantically during mating, ending with a tweeter and a warble. The female warbles during mating.

The adult female and the young in the burrow produce a rasp, urging the adult male to get off his feathered behind, forage for food and provide for his family. The female and young may also say eep, should the male start to sing. The adult female and male both cluck, chatter and scream — and, in a non-vocal response, snap their bills — if their burrow is threatened.


Range, Habitat and Diet

Our western burrowing owl ranges from the southern parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan southward across most of the western United States and into Mexico's Central Highlands. It is, say Haug, Millsap and Martell, "an easily recognized icon of the grasslands and arid regions."

In New Mexico, says the state's Department of Game and Fish, this quirky bird may choose a home in areas such as Chihuahuan Desert scrublands, desert grasslands, lava beds, sand dunes and juniper stands. It may also select human-altered landscapes such as agricultural fields, cemeteries, urban parking lots and walkways, and — if it's a little bit snooty — a well-watered and manicured golf course.

A hunter both by day and by night, the usually predatory western burrowing owl feeds opportunistically, capturing whatever is most readily available in a given season, including a considerable array of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals. It will take, according to Haug, Millsap and Martell, "any terrestrial vertebrate or invertebrate that [it] can physically handle." When foraging, says Hansen, the owls "will run, jump and dart after their prey, capturing it with their talons. Sometimes they will hover like a kestrel or pounce on prey from a perch. Unlike most of its taxonomic kin, burrowing owls also eat fruits and seeds — relishing in particular the sweet, juicy prickly pear tunas that ripen in late summer."


Behavior and Life Cycle

The owl forages throughout the day and night, whenever the spirit moves it, covering an area that may extend as much as one to one and a half miles from its burrow. When not foraging, it roosts near its burrow, sleeping with its eyes closed for brief periods, according to Haug, Millsap and Martell. It preens its mate's feathers, with each bird extending and stretching its wings or legs in sheer ecstasy. It takes dust baths. It finds excitement in a rain shower, stretching and running, shaking and preening.




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