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The Owls of North Dakota

Western Burrowing Owl
Athene cunicularia

JPG -- Picture of Species

The western burrowing owl is a small ground-dwelling bird standing 9-11 inches high with a short tail and long legs. It has a brown back with pale spots, a lighter underside with distinct barring, and lacks ear tufts.

The range of the burrowing owl extends from the prairies of southern Canada to South America. In southern areas, the bird is a year-round resident. In North Dakota, they are migratory, arriving around May and returning to winter in areas like Texas and Mexico.

Historically, the owl was quite common throughout the western three quarters of the state. Forrest B. Lee reported they were very common in Kidder County, observing as many as fifty at one time between 1927 and 1932. Gabrielson reported hundreds being observed in the Badlands, including Hettinger and Stark counties, during this same time period.

Burrowing owls require underground burrows for living quarters. Most often, these are previously excavated by animals like the prairie dog, Richardson's ground squirrel, or badger. They also seem to prefer areas that are lacking much vegetation. This ensures the owls have a good field of view to avoid predators and may aid in the search for insects, one of its primary food sources.

Burrowing owls use the same burrow for nesting year after year if they are not disturbed. Usually 7-9 white eggs are laid and incubated by the female. During this time, the male brings her food. The eggs hatch after about 28 days, but the young birds will not emerge from the burrow until about two weeks of age.

Indication is that burrowing owl populations have been decreasing throughout their range. Loss of grassland habitat to agriculture and elimination of burrowing rodents such as the prairie dog have taken their toll. Most recently, the owl was added to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's candidate species list, meaning the owl may be declining, but data is required to determine the exact status. In 1995, The North Dakota Game and Fish Department, in cooperation with other agencies, began a burrowing owl study which should provide important information on the status of this owl in North Dakota.

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