8 Wonderfully Weird Facts About Burrowing Owls

A pair of burrowing owls standing near the entrance to their burrow under a fallen tree branch surrounded by green grass

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The tiny burrowing owl is a unique specimen among owls in many ways. One of the few owls that is active during the day, it lives in burrows in the ground sometimes made by squirrels and prairie dogs. With a preference for flat, treeless habitats, burrowing owls are found in the deserts and grasslands throughout North, Central, and South America.

From their unusual decorating style to their interesting ways of procuring food, discover the most fascinating facts about the burrowing owl.

1. They Are Unusual Day Hunters

While most owls soar through the sky at night silently hunting for prey, the burrowing owl does not. It is most active during the day, hunting for insects and small mammals on the ground. They tilt their heads and hop, walk, and run in search of a meal. The best times to spot a burrowing owl is early in the morning and late in the evening, which is coincidentally also the best time to catch insects.

2. They Live Underground (or in Manmade Objects)

Two burrowing owls, one sticking out of a drainage pipe they made into a burrow
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While we generally picture owls living in trees, burrowing owls live underground. True recyclers, burrowing owls often take over burrows abandoned by badgers, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and even tortoises. In Florida, burrowing owls often dig their own burrows, and reuse them again the following year. The burrows range from 6 to 10 feet long, with a chamber at one end for nesting. When a suitable burrow or burrowing site is not available, they make do with man-made objects that provide protection.

3. They Have Surprising Habitats

Burrowing owls live in wide, open habitats with sparse vegetation such as prairies, pastures, deserts, golf courses, natural grasslands, and, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, airports. While they might seem easy to spot in the flat, open fields they inhabit, the opposite is true: they blend in perfectly with their natural environment and are tiny in stature, making hiding in plain sight an appropriate choice.

4. They Pack a Full Pantry

Like many burrowing animals, burrowing owls hoard food to get them through lean times; and they take this job seriously. A Saskatchewan cache observed in 1997 contained more than 200 rodents. When they have chicks to feed, male burrowing owls are the primary hunters, bringing food to the burrow for the family. Their variable diet, which includes everything from grasshoppers and beetles to lizards and mice, allows them to be adaptable to whatever is readily available; and when they capture more than they need, they save it for a slow hunting day.

5. Living Underground Gives Them a Higher Tolerance to Carbon Dioxide

Burrowing owls have an especially high tolerance for carbon dioxide — higher than most other birds. Since burrowing owls spend a significant amount of time together deep in their burrows without access to fresh airflow, this adaptation allows them to safely live underground where oxygenated air is not readily available, and gas levels often accumulate to higher levels. Burrowing owls share this adaptation with other burrowing animals who also have a higher tolerance to carbon dioxide.

6. They Cleverly Lure Food

Before laying eggs, these clever birds scatter animal dung all about the entrance to their subterranean burrows; the result? Essentially, the owl version of food delivery; troops of dung beetles and other insects come marching, which the owls then catch and eat without ever leaving home. It’s pretty clear that the owls are using the scat as bait: as soon as the supply runs out, they replace it.

7. They Leave 'No Vacancy' Signs

Two burrowing owls with "decorations" of paper scattered around their underground burrow entrance
João Allbert / Getty Images 

In order to let other creatures know that their burrow is occupied, the owls decorate the entrance to their burrow with assorted pieces of trash like paper scraps, straw wrappers, and bottle caps. During nesting season, the male owl also stands guard outside the entrance to the burrow or on a nearby perch to ensure that there are no unwanted visitors.

8. Their Mating Rituals Involve Food

If there’s one thing about burrowing owls worth remembering, it’s that they really love food. Even in courtship, male owls lure females by presenting them with food. They add a bit of singing, preening, flying up, and descending, but food is an integral part of this annual ritual. Once mated, the male continues to bring food to the female during incubation, and to the young while they are still at home in the nest.

View Article Sources
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  4. Smith, Matthew D., and Courtney Conway J. “Use Of Mammal Manure By Nesting Burrowing Owls: A Test Of Four Functional Hypotheses.” Animal Behaviour, vol. 73, 2007, pp. 65-73., doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2006.05.012