The burrowing owl is federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Burrowing Owls are listed as Endangered in Canada and Threatened in Mexico. They are considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to be a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level, in three USFWS regions, and in nine Bird Conservation Regions. At the state level, Burrowing Owls are listed as Endangered in Minnesota, Threatened in Colorado, and as a Species of Concern in Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming
The Burrowing Owl is about 7 1/2 – 10 inches tall with a wingspan of 21 – 24 inches, and weighs 4 1/2 – 9 ounces. Unlike most owls, the male bird is slightly heavier and has a longer wingspan than the females.
This owl is found in dry, open areas with low vegetation where fossorial mammals (i.e. ground squirrels) congregate such as grasslands, deserts, farmlands, rangelands, golf courses, and vacant lots in urban areas. It was once distributed broadly throughout western North America, but has found itself declining in numbers throughout all historic ranges in the last 30 years. The burrowing owl also occurs in Florida, Central America, and most of South America.
Approximately 22 subspecies have been described with most found in or near the Andes and in the Antilles. Only A. c. hypugaea (Western burrowing owl) and A. c. floridana (Florida burrowing owl) are found in North America.
Burrowing Owls primarily feed on insects and small mammals, but they will also eat reptiles and amphibians. Burrowing Owls hunt while walking or running across the ground and by swooping down from a perch or hover, and they will catch insects from the air.
Mating begins in early spring. Burrowing Owls nest in open areas in a burrow dug by other animals such as ground squirrels. Owls may nest alone or in a group. The female lays 6-12 eggs that are incubated for 28-30 days. The young owls fledge in 6 weeks, but stay in the parent’s territory to forage. Burrowing Owls may be sexually mature at 1 year of age.
The greatest threat to burrowing owls is habitat destruction and degradation caused primarily by land development and ground squirrel/prairie dog control measures. Despite their protected status, burrowing owls are often displaced and their burrows destroyed during the development process. The natural life span of the Burrowing Owl is 6-8 years. Burrowing owls are also at risk of predation from coyotes, birds of prey, and feral cats and dogs. Because of an increase in urban and suburban sprawl, hazards are now consisting of automobiles as well.
The scientific name comes from the Greek word athene, referring to the Greek goddess of wisdom whose favorite bird was an owl, and the Latin word cunicularia, meaning a miner or burrower. Other common names are Billy Owl, Ground Owl, Long-legged Owl, Prairie Owl, and Prairie Dog Owl.