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Burrowing Owls

Conserving Burrowing Owls in North America

Burrowing owls are an incredibly unique species and they are the only raptor in North America to nest exclusively underground. Burrowing Owl populations in North America still face the same primary threats they did three decades ago. Habitat loss, the prevalence of invasive plants, and the control of ground squirrels and other host burrowers have caused burrowing owls to decline across North America. In addition to dramatic declines over the last fifteen years, recent surveys have indicated burrowing owls in California have declined by as much as 36% in the Imperial Valley and by 28% in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region. This decline is on top of a 50%+ decrease in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region population observed from the early 1980s to 1993. In 2016, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission listed the burrowing owl as state threatened.

Our proven and successful efforts are needed more than ever to prevent further losses and restore breeding populations in urban and suburban environments where they have been or are currently being eliminated.

Burrowing Owl Status

The burrowing owl is federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 in the United States, Canada and 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.

Endangered

  • Canada
  • Minnesota

Threatened

  • Mexico
  • Colorado
  • Florida

Species of Special Concern

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Montana
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Wyoming

THREATS

from habitat loss to invasive species

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.


Population Trend

DECREASING

About Burrowing Owls


Habitat

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. The burrowing owl also occurs in North, Central, and most of South America.


Measurements

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.


Subspecies

Approximately 22 subspecies have been described with most found in or near the Andes and in the Antilles. Only Athene cunicularia hypugaea (Western burrowing owl) and Athene cunicularia floridana (Florida burrowing owl) are found in North America.


Diet

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.


Reproduction

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.


Nick Names

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.

What Urban Bird is Doing

Protecting Burrowing Owls

We work towards and advocate for:

  • Increasing state and federal legal protections
  • Creating green urban/suburban corridors and habitat
  • Patrolling development sites to ensure conservation
  • Managing unintentional reserves as suitable habitat
  • Research and monitoring

Thanks to our work, more than 10,000 acres of grassland have been restored and protected.

Here are just a few examples of how we’re helping:

  • Urban Bird advocated and successfully garnered the creation of the first 24-acre suburban preserve dedicated to burrowing owls in Contra Costa County in 2008.
  • In 2011, Urban Bird garnered support amongst California non-profit organizations representing more than 209,000 individuals for a state-wide conservation strategy.
  • In March 2012, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released updated mitigation guidelines for burrowing owls, the first and only update in the last 20 years.
  • In September 2012, California Department of Fish and Wildlife officially recognized Scott Artis, Executive Director of Urban Bird, as being responsible for forcing the development and release of the state’s new mitigation guidelines to protect burrowing owls.
  • Successfully advocated and campaigned for the Florida burrowing owl to be listed on the State Endangered and Threatened Species List in 2016.
  • Increased critical burrowing owl wintering habitat mitigation policy in Southern California.
  • We’ve worked with other conservation groups, landowners, state and federal agencies, and local governments to protect urban and suburban burrowing owl populations from development and to safeguard and restore habitat.

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