The Canadian Peregrine Foundation

Student's Guide to Canada's Wildlife at Risk:
Owl Unit

The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)

The text and illustrations below are reproduced from CPF's Student's Guide to Canada's Wildlife at Risk: Owl UnitClick here for more information on this publication.

(drawing by Amy Mui)

Description: The Burrowing Owl is a small owl, similar in size to an American Robin. It has disproportionately long legs, making it look larger than it really is. The back and wings are brown with small light spots; the underparts are whitish with broad brown barring. The facial disk is not as prominent as on some other owls, but the white eyebrows on the forehead are very noticeable. The Burrowing Owl uses a variety of hunting techniques, sometimes pouncing on prey from a perch such as a fencepost, occasionally hovering above prey before dropping on it, and often simply walking or running along the ground catching insects. It is active both during the day and at night.

Requirements: The Burrowing Owl breeds in dry, open areas of western North America, including parts of southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

As its name suggests, the Burrowing Owl lives in holes in the ground. Though it can modify existing tunnels with its beak and feet, the Burrowing Owl depends on other species such as prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and badgers to dig the original hole. The burrows favoured by owls are usually in or near grassy areas with low vegetation for easy hunting, and are 4 to 10 metres long, with a sharp bend in the tunnel to ensure that the nesting chamber at the end is in complete darkness. The female lays an average of seven eggs, and stays inside for four weeks straight to incubate them, during which time the male brings her food. The diet of the Burrowing Owl is dominated by insects, especially larger varieties such as grasshoppers, scorpions, beetles, dragonflies, and moths. At night it switches to hunting a variety of small mammals. Young Burrowing Owls fledge around 44 days, but remain with their parents for a while after that.

Conservation: The Burrowing Owl was classified as an endangered species in Canada in 1995, and is also considered endangered or threatened in most US states where it occurs. Recently the Canadian population was estimated to be only 1000 breeding pairs in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and declining by 16% per year. The main problem for the Burrowing Owl is the loss of breeding habitat. Grasslands have been reduced in size, and many farmers have tried to eliminate prairie dogs because they damage crops. But without the prairie dogs digging holes, the Burrowing Owl has nowhere to nest. Even Burrowing Owls which find a home face serious problems. They often hunt near roads, and many are killed by cars. Domestic cats and dogs also kill many owls, and they also suffer some natural predation from mammals and larger raptors such as the Ferruginous Hawk.

The use of chemical pesticides on insects and rodents has caused the death of many Burrowing Owls too. This is particularly unfortunate because the Burrowing Owl can be very beneficial to farmers by eating these animals. In Saskatchewan, Operation Burrowing Owl has encouraged more than 450 landowners to protect 7600 square kilometres of Burrowing Owl habitat, and Operation Grassland Community in Alberta has protected another 230 square kilometres. With continued support from landowners and some additional efforts to reduce other causes of mortality, the Burrowing Owl will hopefully be able to continue to live in Canada.


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