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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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North Dakota's

Federally Listed Endangered, Threatened, and Candidate Species – 1995

Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugea)

JPG -- species photo gif--species map

Status: Former Candidate (Note: As of February 28, 1996, this species is no longer listed as a Candidate species. However, it remains a species of management concern.)

Historical Status:
The burrowing owl's historical range is believed to be similar to its present range, however, its abundance and distribution is suspected to be in decline.

Present Status:
The burrowing owl's range extends from the prairies of southern Canada to South America. More specifically, this owl breeds from southern interior British Columbia (nearly extirpated) to southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, southern Manitoba south through western United States, central Mexico, central and southern Florida, West Indies, and locally in much of South America. In the southern parts of their range, burrowing owls are resident, but more northern populations, like those in North Dakota, they are migratory. This owl winters regularly in El Salvador and western Panama. The states of California, New Mexico, and Arizona are important wintering areas in the United States.

Burrowing owls are associated with heavily grazed tracts of mixed-grass prairie, particularly where there are burrows created by large rodents, such as prairie dogs and Richardson ground squirrels.

Life History:
The breeding season is from mid-May to early September. Five to six white eggs are laid in a single clutch. Incubation takes from three to four weeks. In North Dakota, egg records are from May 15 to August 23, with dependent young from June 19 to September 7. Age at first flight is unknown. It hunts during the day and evening by ground foraging, hovering from a perch, or by flycatching. It primarily eats insects and small mammals, but also takes some birds, fish, and frogs. This owl's nest usually consists of a deserted burrow from small mammals or is dug in softer soil by the owl. The burrow may be lined with dried horse or cattle droppings, feathers, grasses, or debris.

Aid to identification:
The burrowing owl is a small owl (9-11 in.). Male and female burrowing owls are similar in appearance. The back is brownish with pale spots, the breast and underside lighter in color and is heavily barred with brown along the flanks. These bars merge into buff-spotted patches of brown at the sides of the breast. Its round head lacks the feathery tufts or "horns" of some other owls. The eyebrows, lower half of the face, and the bib are white; the irises are yellow. The white-feathered legs are very long for an owl but are well designed for running around on the ground after insect prey. The burrowing owl frequently bobs up and down by quick bending motion of the legs. It voice is a rapid cackle or chatter of alarm (cack-cack-cack) and mainly at night, a rapid cooing.

Reasons for decline:
Populations are declining due to widespread elimination of burrowing rodents, notably prairie dogs and ground squirrels. Loss of habitat as a result of conversion of rangeland to irrigated land and, in some areas, loss of habitat to suburbanization. Burrowing owls are usually tolerant of human activity but vulnerable to predation by domestic pets.

Notify a natural resources agency on any suspected burrowing owl sightings.

The burrowing owl has a number of nicknames including: billy owl, howdy owl, and ground owl.

Birds of the Great Plains by P. Johnsgard 1979.

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