|Conservation status||Least concern|
The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) is a species of owl of the genus Athene, and named for its habit of living in holes in the ground. It is found in the grasslands of North and South America as far south as Cape Horn, as well as isolated populations in Florida and some Caribbean islands.
The burrowing owl reaches a body size of 7.5 to 11.0 inches, a wingspan of 20 to 24 inches, and weighs approximately 4.9 to 8.5 ounces, with the largest subspecies found in the Andes mountains. Overall, the bird is brown in color with a vigorous white spotting and banding, yellow eyes under prominent white brows, and long legs for its size. Strong color variances exist among the subspecies, with the birds of South America, Florida and Haiti dark to chocolate brown; the birds of the desert tan to sandy yellow; and birds near forested areas pale brown with orange spots.
The first description of the owl was from the Spanish Jesuit and naturalist Juan Ignacio Molina in 1782, and for a time it was considered to be a single species within the genus Speotyto until a few years ago. Twenty-two subspecies have been described, which differ primarily in their coloration:
- Athene cunicularia amaura; Nevis and Antigua, West Indies (extinct)
- Athene cunicularia apurensis; northcentral Venezuela
- Athene cunicularia arubensis; Aruba
- Athene cunicularia boliviana; Bolivia
- Athene cunicularia brachyptera; Venezuela: Isla Margarita
- Athene cunicularia carrikeri; eastern Colombia
- Athene cunicularia cunicularia; southern Bolivia and southern Brazil to Paraguay, south to Tierra del Fuego
- Athene cunicularia floridana; grasslands of central and southern Florida, Bahamas, Cuba, Isle of Pines
- Athene cunicularia grallaria; Brazil: Maranhão to Mato Grosso and Paraná
- Athene cunicularia guadeloupensis; Guadeloupe Island, West Indies (extinct)
- Athene cunicularia guantanamensis; Cuba: Guantánamo Province
- Athene cunicularia hypugaea; southwestern Canada to El Salvador
- Athene cunicularia intermedia; Peru: coastal Paita to Pacasmayo
- Athene cunicularia juninensis; Andes of central Peru (Junín) to western Bolivia and northwestern Argentina
- Athene cunicularia minor; southern Guyana to northern Brazil (Roraima)
- Athene cunicularia nanodes; Peru: arid littorals of Trujillo to Arequipa
- Athene cunicularia partridgei; Argentina: Corrientes Province
- Athene cunicularia pichinchae; western Ecuador (except for arid littoral)
- Athene cunicularia punensis; arid littorals of southwestern Ecuador to northwestern Peru
- Athene cunicularia rostrata; Mexico: Isla Clarión (Revillagigedo Islands)
- Athene cunicularia tolimae; Colombia: Tolima
- Athene cunicularia troglodytes; Hispaniola, Gonâve and Beata islands
Breeding and diet
The burrowing owl lives as a ground dweller mainly in semi-desert and grassland areas, in loose colonies formed of a maximum of 12 breeding pairs. It lives within burrows dug into the ground, either by its own efforts or within holes dug by mammals, such as prairie dogs. The hole can reach more than three feet down, with winding paths up to ten feet long. Within the burrow is a rough nest, on which two to eleven eggs are laid. Both partners share in brooding, which takes about four weeks.
Burrowing owls are mainly active at dawn, but are also active during the day and at night. Frogs, small birds and mammals, and primarily insects are prey animals. It was also observed that the owl has developed a special strategy for hunting dung beetles, in which they would gather dung and place it near the burrow entrance, and wait for the beetles to arrive.
The overall population of the burrowing owl is currently classified as least concern by the IUCN. However, there are declines in some areas of its range. Between 1966 and 2000, for example, the breeding stock decreased by an annual average of 1.2 percent, with one of the causes a decline in prairie dog population. Especially in the Great Plains of the United States, burrowing owls used particularly frequently abandoned prairie dog burrows on the edge of prairie dog colonies, and were simultaneously exposed to a somewhat reduced pressure of predators.
- Johnsgard, pg. 74
- Johnsgard, Paul A. Great Wildlife of the Great Plains; University Press of Kansas, 2003