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Photo: Burrowing Owl

Graphic: What About Burrowing Owls?

Graphic: Background Information...

What are burrowing owls?
If you drive along rural roads on a spring or summer day in the Tri-City area, you may be lucky enough to see a burrowing owl perched atop a fencepost or sitting on a dirt mound near the entrance to its nest. As the bird's name suggests, this small, round-headed owl with long legs and yellow eyes lives in a hole in the ground made by badgers and other burrowing animals. Badger Canyon is one place you might spot this migratory resident of the Columbia Basin. Look for a buffy white and brown bird, 8 to 10 inches tall, that is active both during the day and at night. Listen for its call, a cooing similar to that of a mourning dove.

How do burrowing owls live?
In eastern Washington, burrowing owls choose burrows in sagebrush stands, open fields, near golf courses, and along road cut banks--areas surrounded by bare ground or short grass where other burrows are located. The burrow's nest cavity is located at the end of a 5- to 10-foot tunnel that usually has at least one turn. The owls line the tunnel with cow or horse dung. The female owl lays seven to nine white eggs in the nest cavity. The eggs hatch in about 28 days. Two to four weeks after hatching you may see the little owlets sitting near the burrow entrance. When frightened, the owlets hop back into their hole. When disturbed in the burrow, the young owls make a rasping noise similar to that of a rattlesnake's rattle.

Burrowing owls are opportunistic feeders. They consume mostly insects, especially beetles, crickets, and grasshoppers. They also prey on small mammals, birds, and lizards. They eat mostly vertebrates during the spring breeding season and insects later in the summer.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series Logo

Why are burrowing owls declining?
Until about 100 years ago, burrowing owls were common across the plains and prairies of North America, but the advent of agriculture and other human development such as building homes greatly reduced the bird's range. Plowing and building eliminated habitat for burrowing owls as well as for mammals that made the burrows in which they live. The use of pesticides related to agriculture is thought to have harmed mature and young burrowing owls and eliminated the bird's food supply. Also, because owls sit near roadsides to hunt, collisions with vehicles cause mortality. Recently, however, artificial nests have been installed by conservationists and successfully used by the birds. Owls that disappeared in British Columbia have been reintroduced in recent years as a result of these artificial nests. In the Tri-Cities, volunteers have built nearly 120 nests (as of March 1999) to help restore the local population. Homes for burrowing owls have been built from Horn Rapids Golf Course to the Pasco Airport. For some reason, the owls seem tolerant of human presence and successfully breed near golf courses and airports.

Graphic: Notes... Did You Know . .

Owls see primarily in black and white.
Owl ear tufts are not ears; they are used for camouflage.
Fossil owls date back 40-65 million years.
In many species, females are larger than males.
Owls range in size from two ounces to eight pounds.
The fourth toe is opposable in owls.
Owls can turn their heads about 270 degrees.

From The Owl Institute, Missoula, Montana

Graphic: Suggested Activities...

Learn about artificial nesting. Contact the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society (Charlotte Reep, 547-9087) to find out about artificial nesting activities in the Tri-City area.

Build nest tunnels. Locate an area near your school or home where you could build two or three burrowing owl nest tunnels.

Locate an area not covered with thick weeds that is located at least 100 yards away from any structure or building and 100 yards away from the nearest burrowing owl nest.

Dig a 7-foot-long trench with a 90-degree bend in it so it makes a J-shaped tunnel between the nest entrance and the nest cavity. The end of the tunnel (where the upside down bucket will go) should be at least 30 inches deep. The rest of the tunnel should slope gently (20-30 degrees) up to the entrance of the nest tunnel.

Place the tunnel in the J-shaped trench. Insert the tunnel into the upside down bucket, which should be on a level plane. The tunnel should be inserted into the bucket only 0.5 or 1 inch. The other end of the tunnel should be at the surface entrance. Before covering the tunnel and nest cavity with dirt, put a few scoops of dirt down the tunnel to make it seem more natural for the owls.

Place the post next to the nest cavity before filling in the dirt. Make sure it sticks up above ground 3 or 4 feet. Cover the nest cavity and the tunnel gently with dirt. Pat the dirt down, and try to make it look natural with rocks or dried plant material. At the entrance to the tunnel, mound a little dirt up in front of the hole as if a badger had scooped it out. (Owls like to be on a little bit of a rise.) Once the nest is installed, observe it from a distance so as not to disturb any owls that chose to use it to raise young in the spring.

Questions a scientist might ask: How many young do burrowing owls raise? What do parents feed the young? Are there specific sounds the parents make when calling their young? Where do burrowing owls go in the winter, and what do they do during migration?

Graphic:  Other Resources...

  1. All About Owls, 1995, Jim Arnosky, Scholastic Trade, New York.
  2. Birds of the Night (Curious Creatures), 1994, Jean DeSart, Charlesbridge, Watertown, Massachusetts.
  3. Birds of the Tri-Cities and Vicinity, 1991, Howard R. Ennor, Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, Richland, Washington.
  4. Great Explorations in Math and Science, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, California. Schoolyard Ecology (3-6).
  5. Life Histories of North American Birds, A.C. Bent, Dover Press, Mineola, New York.
  6. Owl (See How They Grow Series), 1992, Mary Ling, Dorling Kindersley Books, New York.
  7. Owl Moon, 1987, Jane Yolen, Philomel Books, New York.
  8. Owls, Markus Kappeler, 1991, Gareth Stevens Children's Books, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  9. Owls: On Silent Wings (The Wonder Series), 1994, Ann Cooper, Roberts Rinehart, Boulder, Colorado.
  10. Shrub-Steppe Seasons: A Natural History of the Mid-Columbia Basin, 1995. Lee E. Rogers, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington.
  11. The Book of North American Owls, 1995, Helen Roney Sattler, Clarion Books, New York.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. National Audubon Society: http://www.audubon.org/
  2. Science Net Links Lesson Plan—Burrowing Owls http://www.sciencenetlinks.com/lessons.cfm?DocID=84
  3. The Owl Pages: http://www.owlpages.com/species/athene/cunicularia/Default.htm
  4. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/
  5. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Burrowing Owl Cam - http://wdfw.wa.gov/wildwatch/owlcam/

Graphic: Acknowledgments...

Development and printing was funded by the Partnership for Arid Lands Stewardship. Written by: Jonathan Soll, The Nature Conservancy of Washington. Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design; Printing: Eagle Printing and Graphic Design. First Printing: June 1998.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series

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