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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Forest and Rangeland Birds of the United States

Natural History and Habitat Use

Burrowing Owl -- Athene cunicularia

RANGE: Breeds from southern interior British Columbia to southern Manitoba south through eastern Washington, central Oregon, and California to Baja California, east to western Minnesota, western Missouri, Oklahoma, eastern Louisiana, and south to Mexico and Central America; also in Florida. Winters throughout breeding range except for the northern portions in the Great Basin and Great Plains regions.

STATUS: Locally common; populations declining due to widespread elimination of burrowing rodents, notably prairie dogs and ground squirrels.

HABITAT: Prefers nonforested plains, grasslands, deserts, and sometimes open areas such as vacant lots near human habitations or airports. Largely depends on mammals that dig burrows in open areas with short vegetation for nesting, roosting, and for escape. Commonly perches on fence posts, bushes, utility wires, roadside billboards, and burrow mounds.

SPECIAL HABITAT REQUIREMENTS: Burrows of colonial burrowing mammals, especially prairie dogs and ground squirrels in open spaces.

NEST: In the West, often nests in colonies in abandoned burrows of prairie dogs, and ground squirrels; also nests in burrows of woodchucks, foxes, badgers, coyotes, and armadillos. In Florida, nests in gopher tortoise burrows. Can excavate own burrow but usually enlarges burrows started by mammals and uses same burrow for years if not disturbed.

FOOD: Hunts by ground foraging, hovering, from a perch, or by flycatching. Primarily eats insects and small mammals, but also takes some birds, fishes, and frogs.

REFERENCES: Butts 1973, Errington and Bennett 1935, Evans 1982, Heintzelman 1979, Karalus and Eckert 1974, Tate and Tate 1982, Terres 1980, Zarn 1974b.

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