Daytime Owls: Western Burrowing Owls

Cover photo: © Julio Mulero, 2017, some rights reserved.

Did you know that not all owls are active at night? Meet the burrowing owl – a small, charismatic species of owl that is out during the day.

Cover photo: © Julio Mulero, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See Western Burrowing Owls

Shoreline Park Circle

Shoreline Regional Park

Western burrowing owls are small, standing at about 10 inches.

Western burrowing owls have a mottled pattern of brown and white across their body. They have bright, yellow eyes and long legs. They are small owls, averaging 8 to 10 inches in height.

Burrowing owls are facing steep population declines in the Bay Area.

Habitat loss and fragmentation have led to steep declines in the Bay Area’s burrowing owl population. In the mid-1980’s, it was estimated that there were 640 individuals, with three-quarters in the South Bay alone. In 2017, a survey in the South Bay reported just 64 individuals during the breeding season.

Projects for owl habitat restoration and public education programs are being implemented now. For more information on how you can get involved, visit the Santa Clara Audubon Society’s volunteer page and the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s docent page.

Burrowing owls are found in two areas in the United States: the west and Florida.

Burrowing Owls are separated into two subspecies: one species found in the western United States (western burrowing owl) and one species found in Florida (Florida burrowing owl). In the San Francisco Bay Area, they are found in isolated areas in the East Bay and South Bay.

In the northern part of their range, western burrowing owls will migrate south for the winter, arriving at their wintering site in October and departing from it in March.

Western burrowing owls live in flat grasslands, occupying abandoned burrows dug by mammals.

Burrowing owls are found in grassland areas, often in close association with California ground squirrels. They prefer areas with very short vegetation so that they are able to easily detect predators.

Burrowing owls are known to reside in close proximity to humans. One example of this is a population of burrowing owls that lives at the Mountain View Shoreline Park golf course. Here, the small population is adored by the regulars – some golfers have even named individual birds.

Western burrowing owls are opportunistic eaters.

Western burrowing owls are raptors, meaning that they capture and kill their prey with their feet. To forage, burrowing owls will hover, fly, and run to chase their prey. Burrowing owls are opportunistic eaters, meaning that they will feed on a variety of sources depending on its availability. They are known to eat insects, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and small birds.

Burrowing owls will imitate rattlesnakes to scare off predators.

Burrowing owl calls sound like a two-part coo-coo. Just like parrots are known to mimic humans, the burrowing owl is known to mimic the rattling sound of a rattlesnake. This vocalization is thought to be a means to deter predators, since an angry rattlesnake is a threatening sound to many animals.

For more burrowing owl sounds, check out their sound page by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For more information on the hissing mimicry, check out this page by the Audubon Society.

Burrowing owls nest in burrows, using the poop of other animals to deter predators.

Breeding burrowing owls nest inside of their burrows. They will line the inside and entrance of their burrows with other animals’ dung, which is hypothesized to mask the smell of their young from predators.

They will form loose groups when nesting, perhaps to help owls better detect predators since more individuals are present to be vigilant. Young burrowing owls rely on their parents for food until they are about 4 weeks of age. By 6 weeks of age, young burrowing owls are capable of flight.

Cool facts about western burrowing owls:

  • Western burrowing owls are one of two subspecies of burrowing owl – the western burrowing owl, which lives on the west coast of the U.S., and the Florida burrowing owl, which only lives in Florida.
  • Burrowing owls don’t actually excavate their own burrows! They rely on mammals like the California Ground Squirrel to dig the burrows for them.
  • A young adult novel, Hoot, was written about Florida burrowing owls. In the novel, a group of young kids bands together to help save local owls from losing their habitat to development.

Resources to learn more:

Author: Taylor Crisologo

Taylor studied biology at Cornell University, where she worked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on projects ranging from breeding herring gulls off the coast of Maine to dancing lyrebirds in Australia’s Blue Mountains. When she’s not researching great places to experience Bay Area nature, you can find her birding or reading a book at home with her husband and their two indoor cats (Max and Penelope).

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