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About the cover

Burrowing Owl

If threatened near its burrow, the owl may respond, not only with clucks, chatters, screams and bill clicks, but also by fluffing its feathers and drooping its wings while crouching, bobbing and weaving, like a featherweight boxer. It may chase the intruder, striking with extended talons. In flight, say Haug, Millsap and Martell, it stays "low to the ground, using slow wing beats or gliding to escape disturbance."

Howdy, Birds!

  • For some reason, back in the late 1990s, New Mexico's western burrowing owl population seemed to favor the area along Route 74, north of Santa Fe, accounting for 38% of the state's total in 1998. "The factors responsible for Route 74's high numbers from 1997-2000 compared to all other routes during those years are unknown," commented Patricia C. Arrowood, Carol A. Finley and Bruce C. Thompson in "Analyses of Burrowing Owl Populations in New Mexico."
  • The owl may store prey if it is abundant — caching dozens of mice, for instance, near a nesting burrow.
  • In August, western burrowing owls interrupted and delayed completion of a 4.25-mile-long extension of Las Cruces' Triviz Multi-purpose Path, when construction crews encountered a nest along the pathway between Motel Boulevard and La Llorona Park. As a protected species, the birds' nest could not be disturbed.
  • When listening for prey with its asymmetrically positioned ears, the western burrowing owl may perch on a nearby mound or fence post and bob its head, according to Martha Hansen of the Chihuahua Desert Nature Park. "Cowboys mistook this head-bobbing gesture for a friendly greeting and gave these tiny creatures the nickname, 'Howdy Birds.'"

In the breeding season, a male tries to charm a female simply by showing off, with ascending, descending and circular flight. He sings coo coooo to her and presents her with dinner. If romance ensues, the male and female rub bills and preen heads and faces. The male struts, then quickly mounts the female to mate — an act, accompanied by the loving songs of burrowing owls, that lasts for perhaps four seconds.

In anticipation of the coming family, the two shape and decorate their home according to their individual taste. They dig with their beaks. They kick dirt backward with their feet. They may line the entrance and the floor with prey remains, dried dung, feathers, grass and, sometimes, even paper scraps, cigarette butts, plastic fragments and foil.

Some days after mating — usually in about the third week of March in New Mexico — the female begins laying a half a dozen or more smooth, white, inch-long eggs. Although she produces her eggs over a period of several days, she begins incubation with the arrival of the first. She will leave her eggs only briefly, emerging from the burrow just for a few moments, until they all hatch. The male, meanwhile, takes sole responsibility for feeding his mate.

About a month after she begins laying eggs, says the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Status Assessment and Conservation Plan for the Western Burrowing Owl in the United States), her young begin hatching, a process that will last for several days. The newborn burrowing owl, partly downy and completely helpless, will grow and develop rapidly. The male serves as the sole provider for his family, delivering prey to his mate, who shreds it for the chicks.

"The young begin feathering out at two weeks of age," says the USFWS. "The young run and forage by four weeks of age and are capable of sustained flight by six weeks. Burrowing owl families often switch burrows every 10-15 days when the young are three to four weeks old and remain as a loose-knit group until early fall when the young may begin to disperse to nearby burrows." A burrowing owl reaches sexual maturity at about 10 months of age, and they have been known to live for as long as eight years, say Haug, Millsap and Martell.

The western burrowing owls from the northern Great Plains migrate to a broad scattering of wintering grounds in the southern states and Mexico. In one example, provided by Haug, Millsap and Martell, one of the birds, followed by a satellite transmitter, migrated from Canada to southeastern New Mexico to Baja California. In New Mexico, the females, the fledglings and some males migrate each year, but most mature males choose to stay put, maintaining a favored burrow, awaiting the return of females in late winter.


Life's Perils

Western burrowing owls, notes the USFWS, "are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States and Mexico. They are listed as Endangered in Canada and Threatened in Mexico. They are considered by the USFWS to be a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level."

Populations have declined in many parts of the owl's range, primarily because of factors such as land development, habitat fragmentation, indiscriminate pesticide applications, predation, illegal hunting and, especially, burrowing-animal eradication.

In New Mexico, where, according to estimates, we have several thousand pairs of the birds, "The burrowing owl… is considered a species of concern by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and is protected by both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and by New Mexico statute 17-2-14 (NMSA 1978)," according to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish's "Guidelines and Recommendations for Burrowing Owl Surveys and Mitigation."

In southwestern and south-central New Mexico, western burrowing owl colonies hold permanent residence in places such as the Gray Ranch in Hidalgo County, the Las Cruces/New Mexico State University area in Doña Ana County, the White Sands National Monument in Doña Ana and Otero Counties and Holloman Air Force Base in Otero County, according to the USFWS. Populations have increased in some areas as a result of conservation efforts by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and environmental organizations.

The burrowing owls — "Charismatic and sometimes comical," as Haug, Millsap and Martell describe them — follow such individualistic and often unpredictable behavior that, in the end, each one could say, "I did it my way."


Author's note: My thanks to friend David Noble, who led me to the western burrowing owl burrow and the resident owls, located not far from the New Mexico State University golf course in Las Cruces.

Jay W. Sharp is a Las Cruces author who is a regular contributor to DesertUSA, an Internet magazine, and who is the author of Texas Unexplained, now available as an e-book from Amazon or iTunes. To read all his guides to wildlife of the Southwest, see www.desertexposure.com/wildlife.




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