Habitat: Burrowing owls require open areas with low ground cover, existing burrows, and abundant food. They rely on holes in the ground made by ground squirrels, badgers, and foxes in which to make their nests. Sometimes they can even be found in open areas near human habitations like vacant lots or airports.
Summer Range: Breeds in southern interior of BC, southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, and southern west and central Manitoba.
Winter Range: The Burrowing owl prefers plains and treeless areas from the southern parts of western Canada through the western United States to Honduras, central and southern Florida, the West Indies, Central America, and much of South America. In winter this owl is found in all but its most northern breeding grounds.
Food: Grasshoppers and beetles are the Burrowing owl’s favourite foods. They also eat a few mice, voles, ground squirrels, toads, small birds, and carrion.
This owl appears to be diurnal as it is seen hunting both during the day and night with most activity happening in the morning and evening. It usually catches more insects during the day and more mammals at night.
Hunting methods include running after insects, hovering close to the ground and pouncing on prey, catching insects in its feet, and hunting from a perch.
Breeding Behaviour: In April, the male arrives in Canada in the summer breeding grounds. He chooses a burrow and the female arrives shortly afterwards. Following an elaborate courtship display which includes flashing white markings, cooing, bowing, scratching, nipping, stretching, repeated short flights and a “coo-cooo” call, the birds pair, but generally not for life.
Nest Type and Egg Description: Nests for this bird are built in holes in the ground dug either by the owl itself, but more often, dug and abandoned by prairie dogs, skunks, armadillos, or tortoises. The male burrowing owl lines the hole with dried plants and feathers. It also puts collected mammal dung in and around its burrow to attract dung beetles, which it then captures and eats. After arranging the nesting burrow, the male will live in a separate nearby burrow.
Females lay six to 12 white eggs and incubate them for about four weeks. The eggs eventually stain brownish from the nest. After about two weeks, the nest usually gets too crowded. At that time, the young move to the entrance of the nest, where they stand waiting for the adults to bring them food. About seven to eight weeks after hatching, the young will start to feed themselves.
Conservation Status: Burrowing owls were common summer residents in the southern regions of the prairie provinces and BC until the mid-1900s when modern agriculture practices began. Cultivation of the land for agriculture has severely reduced burrowing owl habitat over the years.
By 1979, burrowing owls were extirpated from BC. Burrowing owl populations in the prairie provinces continue to decline. Today, there are thought to be fewer than 1,000 pairs remaining in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and on rare occasions, in southwestern Manitoba. Occasionally, the owls winter in coastal British Columbia and are seen in Ontario and Quebec during spring.
Some factors attributed to their decline are pesticides, extermination of the animals that typically make the burrows where the owls nest, motor vehicle collisions, and habitat loss. Currently, a number of programs are in place in Canada to help restore the habitat and population of this small owl.
Information on this page compiled by Jessie Blake.
BirdLife International. http://www.birdlife.org
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/eng/sct5/index_e.cfm
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/.
Ehrlich, Paul R. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. Simon and Schuster, New York.
Godfrey, Earl W. 1986. Birds of Canada. National Museums of Canada, Ottawa.
Hinterland Who’s Who. http://www.hww.ca
Leslie, Scott. 2006. Wetland Birds of North America. Key Porter Books, Toronto. NatureServe. InfoNatura. http://www.natureserve.org/infonatura/