The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) is a small, long-legged owl about nine inches in length and weighing about six ounces. It has bright yellow eyes, brown to gray white-spotted feathers, and wide eyebrows. Male and female owls are similar in appearance and size, but the male's feathers tend to be grayer and sun bleached because it spends more time outside the burrow. Although burrowing owls look similar to other owls, their habitat, diet, and adaptive characteristics and behaviors are quite different.
The burrowing owl range is confined to deserts, prairies, farmlands, and parks of the Great Plains and the Rockies, from southern Canada to South America, and across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida. Except for the populations in Florida, burrowing owls migrate to Mexico for the winter. Burrowing owls in Washington migrate south along the coast and winter in California. While most owls take up residence in cavities found in trees or buildings, burrowing owls often use abandoned burrows, and sometimes share underground homes of other animals for nests and shelter. Burrowing owls prefer low-lying vegetation and habitats maintained by the suite of animals known informally as ecosystem engineers, such as the desert tortoise, armadillo, prairie dog, badger, ground squirrel, or fox. These species, with their burrowing behaviors, help form and modify their environment.
A burrowing owl's diet consists of caterpillars, moths, spiders, and scorpions. Depending on habitat location, they also prey on frogs, small birds, a wide variety of small lizards, and any rodents that they can catch. In addition, burrowing owls are the only owls that eat fruits and seeds.
Burrowing owls are diurnal; they may be active during the day, but are most often seen around dawn or dusk. Their powerful eyesight helps them spot even the smallest prey from great distances. When hunting, they wait on a perch until they spot prey. Then they swoop down or fly up to catch insects in flight. Sometimes they chase down their prey by running across the ground on their long legs.
The current population of burrowing owls is estimated at fewer than 10,000 breeding pairs. The population seems to be in decline along the range. The greatest threat to burrowing owls is habitat destruction caused by land development. They are also threatened by agricultural development, the use of pesticides, and prairie dog relocation programs. They are considered an endangered species in Canada, and are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.