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A Closer Look: The Wise Burrower


Scott Gomes

JPG - Burrowing Owls (PIC)
Burrowing owls often build their nests in underground tunnels excavated by mammals such as prairie dogs and badgers.

Originally published in:
North Dakota Outdoors
(July, 1997)

Official publication of the
State Game and Fish Department
100 North Bismarck Expressway
Bismarck, North Dakota 58501-5095

This resource is based on the following sources:
Gomes, Scott.  1997.  A Closer Look:  The Wise Burrower.  North Dakota Outdoors 
This resource should be cited as:
Gomes, Scott.  1997.  A Closer Look:  The Wise Burrower.  North Dakota Outdoors 
     60(1):7.  Jamestown, ND:  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
     (Version 15MAY98).

Return to A Closer Look Series
Ask a person to describe an owl and they will usually portray a large solitary bird that lives in forests and hunts at night. The burrowing owl doesn't fit this description. It lives on the prairie from southern Canada to South America. Its scientific name, Athene cunicalria, means "wise burrower."

The burrowing owl is rather small, standing only about nine inches tall and weighing a mere 155 grams (less than eight ounces). The burrowing owl's unique characteristic is that it nests underground. Most often, the living quarters is a burrow made by another animal such as a prairie dog or badger. In fact, many North Dakota burrowing owls nest in prairie dog towns.

Historically, the burrowing owl was common throughout much of the state. Since the early 1900s, conversion of grassland habitat to cropland, and elimination of prairie dog towns have greatly reduced burrowing owl numbers.

Burrowing owls arrive in North Dakota about mid-April from wintering grounds in Texas and Mexico. They sometimes nest near other burrowing owls in loose colonies. The nest is often lined with horse or cow dung, weeds and grasses. The female lays 7-9 white eggs with both sexes sharing incubation duties. Incubation lasts about 28 days; young can fly 30 days after hatching. The distress call of a young burrowing owl mimics the rattling of a prairie rattlesnake, a great deterrent for would-be predators.

Burrowing owls eat mostly insects and small rodents. They usually take grasshoppers, moths and dragonflies on the fly, much like a tree swallow hunting mosquitoes. They also eat mice, frogs, and small birds such as sparrows. Burrowing owls hunt mostly during early evening and throughout the night. They also have a curious habit of following cattle, hoping to catch prey disturbed by their movement.

Surveys indicate the burrowing owl population is decreasing. Recently, it was added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's candidate species list, which means further studies are needed to determine the exact status. Currently, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is conducting a five-year study on burrowing owl populations in western North Dakota.

To learn more about North Dakota's owls, the Nongame Wildlife Program's color brochure, "Owls of North Dakota" is available free by calling Scott Gomes at 328-6224 or Chris Grondahl at 328-6612.

Scott Gomes is a technician with the Department's natural resources division.

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