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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.

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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