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Zoo-ology column: Small burrowing owls attract big fascination

By By Judie Farnsworth
April 15, 2012 at 10 p.m.
Updated April 14, 2012 at 11:15 p.m.

A burrowing owl family hangs out together.

Owl - the word invokes mental images of large bodied birds gazing aloofly from high overhead.

Hisses, shrieks and hoots that echo through the night produce a feeling of "Wow."

But then there are burrowing owls. Their plaintive "who whoooo," produces a reaction more like, "Awww."

These appealing little owls average 8 to 10 inches tall, but have an impressive array of regional names, including billy owl, long-legged owl, prairie dog owl, howdy owl, rattlesnake owl, cuckoo owl, tunnel owl, hill owl and ground owl.

Their scientific name, Athene cunicularia, refers to Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom (she loved owls) and the Latin (cunicularia) for miner or burrower.

As the name implies, these owls nest in the ground. They may dig a burrow, but more often use those created by prairie dogs, skunks, armadillos or tortoises.

Grasslands and dry, open areas like prairie dog towns are perfect home sites.

Places like golf courses or culverts with drainage pipes are also used. Since the preferred areas are often treeless, fence posts or dirt piles from their digging are functional observation posts.

They may be seen stretching, bobbing up and down and tilting their heads as they keep watch.

They hunt day and night, taking more small mammals at night and insects during the day. Grasshoppers, crickets, scorpions and termites are popular menu items.

Reptiles and some birds may also be dinner for these owls. Unlike other owls, they also eat fruits and seeds.

Burrowing owls have several hunting techniques. They can catch larger insects in mid-air or chase and pounce on the ground. They are able to hover and can flap their wings asynchronously (not uniformly up and down) before diving, or may silently glide from a perch.

Burrowing owls usually pair bond for a year. After courting, a nest site is chosen. If it needs to be made larger or spiffed up a bit, dirt is scratched and kicked out behind the digger.

These owls are great at re-purposing. A cow chip here, some horse dung there, feathers, grass and voila - home sweet home.

To make things even cozier, the aromatic ambiance around the entrance attracts dung beetles that may become supper.

Males stand guard on dirt piles at the burrow entrance. They bring food to their mate while they're incubating eggs and for the young before they are ready to leave the nest. While mom retains her natural color, dad may get a little bleached out from the sun during his care-giving activities.

The young owlets are not without an effective defense. They are able to make a sound that mimics a rattlesnake buzz that works nicely.

At about 2 weeks old, they may be seen at the burrow's entrance. They will soon leave their home, which by now is much less than tidy. A new burrow is then sought for shelter.

Burrowing owls in their ranges are designated threatened, endangered or as having special concerns - most often due to habitat destruction. They can be found in our part of the country in the proper setting.

The Texas Zoo now has a burrowing owl that will take part in educational programs before long.

Sources: • The Birder's Handbook (Ehrlich, Dobkin & Wheye) owlpages.com/owls.php?genus=Athene&species=cunicularia

• allaboutbirds.org/guide/burrowing_owl/lifehistory

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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