Burrowing Owl: Athene cunicularia
The burrowing owl is a pint-sized bird that lives in open, treeless areas. The burrowing owl spends most of its time on the ground, where its sandy brown plumage provides camouflage from potential predators. One of Florida's smallest owls, it averages nine inches in height with a wingspan of 21 inches. The burrowing owl lacks the ear tufts of the more familiar woodland owls. Bright yellow eyes and a white chin accent the face. Unusually long legs provide additional height for a better view from its typical ground-level perch.
The Florida burrowing owl occurs throughout the state although its distribution is considered local and spotty. The presence of burrowing owls is primarily dependent upon habitat. Humans have created new habitat for burrowing owls by clearing forests and draining wetlands. Burrowing owls inhabit open native prairies and cleared areas that offer short groundcover including pastures, agricultural fields, golf courses, airports, and vacant lots in residential areas. Historically, the burrowing owl occupied the prairies of central Florida. Recently, these populations have decreased because of disappearing habitat while populations in south Florida coastal areas have increased due to modification of habitat by humans.
Burrowing owls live as single breeding pairs or in loose colonies consisting of two or more families. Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are active during both day and night. During the day, they are usually seen standing erect at the mouth of the burrow or on a nearby post. When disturbed, the owl bobs in agitation and utters a chattering or clucking call. In flight, burrowing owls typically undulate as if they are flying an invisible obstacle course. They also can hover in midair, a technique effective for capturing food.
Burrowing owls use burrows year-round; for roosting during the winter and for raising young during the breeding season (Feb - July). Florida's owls typically dig their own burrows but will use gopher tortoise or armadillo burrows. Burrows extend 4 to 8 feet underground and are lined with materials such as grass clippings, feathers, paper, and manure.
Burrowing owls mainly eat insects, especially grasshoppers and beetles. They can be of special benefit in urban settings since they also consume roaches and mole crickets. Other important foods are small lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, and rodents.
Eggs are primarily laid in March but nesting can occur from October through May. The female lays six to eight eggs over a one-week period. She will incubate the eggs for 21 to 28 days.
At hatching, the young owls are covered with white downy feathers and have their eyes closed. They emerge from the burrow when they are 2 weeks old. At 4 weeks, they are learning to fly but cannot fly well until 6 weeks old. They remain with their parents until they are 12 weeks old.
The Florida burrowing owl is classified as a "species of special concern" by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This means burrows, owls, and their eggs are protected from harassment and/or disturbance by state law. Burrowing owls are also protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
What You Can Do To Help
- Install T-perches near owl burrows. Perches provide burrowing owls with an elevated view of the nest area, and also make the burrows more visible to mowing machine operators. Many burrows collapse each year when mower tires pass near the burrow entrance. If you put up perches, be sure that you keep the grass and weeds trimmed low around the burrow to give the owls the unobstructed view that they need to avoid predators.
- Restrict use of pesticides. Because burrowing owls feed on insects that are considered pests around homes, they are exposed to the insecticides you use. Pesticides decrease and possibly contaminate food available to owls. Explore options other than using pesticides, but if you continue to use them, please do so with caution.
- Attracting owls to your lawn. Burrowing owls may dig burrows in sodded yards if vacant lots are scarce. To attract a pair, remove a 1-2 foot circular plug of sod from the lawn. This exposes the sandy soil needed by the owls for burrowing. You might also start the burrow and place a pile of loose sand near the mouth. Placing a T-perch near the burrow can help draw it to a pair's attention.
- Report malicious destruction or harassment of burrowing owls or their nests. 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).