All about owls

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Description

The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugea) is a small ground dwelling owl with long legs.

They have a round head, no ear tufts, white eyebrows and bright yellow eyes.

They have a prominent white chin stripe.

They are sandy coloured on the head, back and upper parts of the wings, with a brown and white mottling on the breast and belly.

There is little colour difference (or sexual dimorphism) between males and females.

Unlike most birds of prey, the females tend to be slightly smaller. In breeding season, the females are also darker, possibly due to extended nesting periods in the burrow .

Juveniles are brown on the head, back and wings, with cream white belly and chest. They moult into their adult plumage during their first summer.

Juveniles are brown on the head, back and wings, with cream white belly and chest. They moult into their adult plumage during their first summer.

Vital Statistics:

Length:

  • 21 - 28 cm (8.5 - 11 inches)

Wingspan:

  • 51 - 61 cm (20 - 24 inches)

Weight:

  • 160 - 240 g (0.429 - 0.643 lb)

    Vocalization

    Burrowing Owls make a wide range of calls. The main call is a soft "who who" sound usually given at the burrow entrance. Males use this main call for attracting females to the burrow. The sound is also associated with breeding and identifiying the territory of a pair.

  • Typical male call
  • Courtship call
  • Alarmed/ defensive call
  • Over 17 calls have been identified, including "rasp," "chuck," and "chatter." They also have unique alarm calls. Adults will emit a piercing scream but juveniles give a rattlesnake like "buzz" when threatened in the burrow.

    Habits

    Unlike most birds of prey, Burrowing Owls spend a great deal of time on, or near, the ground. They make their home below ground, usually seeking out burrows abandoned by badgers or marmots. In the western US they are also found in colonial groupings near prairie dog colonies. In BC we have found them in abandoned badger and marmot burrows. The owls are resourceful and have also been found living in abandoned pipe, in depressions under buildings and other subterranean excavations that serve the purpose. The BC Burrowing owl program is largely about providing nesting and roosting opportunities for the owls.

    Burrowing owls are usually active at dawn or dusk. As ground nesters they are often spotted sitting on rocks, mounds of earth or fence posts. They will often stand motionless on one foot, but, when excited will bob up and down. Their cryptic colouration allows them to blend into the earth tones of their native grasslands, which often makes them difficult to spot at first.

    Burrowing Owls often nest in loose colonies. Several nesting pairs may establish in relatively close proximity, perhaps due to abundant food or multiple burrow sites. Another advantage of this living strategy is that the birds serve as a warning system for the other owls concerning incoming predators.

    Breeding

    A Burrowing owl can breed the summer after it hatches and every summer thereafter, the nesting season beginning in late March or April. They are usually monogamous but occasionally a male with have two mates. Courtship displays include flashing white markings, cooing, bowing, scratching, and nipping. The male performs display flights, rising quickly to 30 metres (100 feet), hovering for 5-10 seconds, then dropping 15 metres (50 feet). This sequence is repeated many times. Circling flights can also occur.

    Burrowing owls nest underground in abandoned burrows dug by mammals or if soil conditions allow they will dig their own burrows. They will also use man-made nest boxes placed underground. They often line their nest with an assortment of dry materials. Adults usually return to the same burrow or a nearby area each year.

    One or more "satellite" burrows can usually be found near the nest burrow, and are used by adult males during the nesting period and by juvenile owls for a few weeks after they emerge from the nest.

    The female will lay a day apart six to twelve (average nine) ping pong ball-sized white eggs. The eggs are incubated by the female for 21 - 30 days. The male hunts throughout this time and supplies the female with food, standing guard near the burrow by day. Newly hatched chicks are totally dependent on their parents for warmth and food for a couple of weeks after hatching, the care of the young while still in the nest performed by the male. At two weeks, the young may be seen roosting at the entrance to the burrow, waiting for the adults to return with food. At three weeks, the young birds begin to emerge from the burrow and explore. At four or five weeks of age, some of the brood may even move to a neighboring burrow. The young birds begin to fly about a month after hatching and are independent from their parents by the time the birds begin to migrate south in mid-September. They leave the nest at about 44 days and begin chasing live insects when 49-56 days old.

    Here in Canada, the burrowing owl has only enough time to raise a single brood. The number of chicks raised to fledging varies greatly from year to year depending on food, predators, weather and other factors that our biologists are working at figuring out.

    Burrowing owls that breed in Canada remain on the breeding grounds from April to September. At that time, the prairie owls migrate 2500 to 3500 km to south Texas and central Mexico, arriving in November. Most British Columbia owls migrate to the west coast from Washington to California; a few spend winter at the inland release sites near Kamloops. In the south, burrowing owls live in agricultural fields, as well as in more open, grassland country, orchards, and even thorn shrub woodlands. They often hide in burrows, culverts, or open pipes in the daytime, but sometimes they just sit under grass clumps. The owls that journey to summer breeding grounds in Canada begin their migration in late February and early March.

About BOCS BC

We are a non-profit society concerned about the conservation of species and habitats in BC.

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