There are two distinct populations of the burrowing owl, one nesting in southwest Canada and the western United States, the other in Florida. Northern populations winter in the southern United States and Mexico. True to its name, the owl inhabits abandoned burrows, which it adapts by enlarging and making a nesting chamber at the end of the tunnel. Populations often adopt prairie dog and ground squirrel burrows, though armadillo and gopher tortoise nests are used as well. Groups will often congregate in a colony where a complex of tunnels is available.
Often spotted standing outside its burrow in daylight, the burrowing owl is the only small owl frequently seen in the open during the day. It usually hunts at night, preying on small rodents, birds, frogs, reptiles and insects. Before laying eggs, the owl decorates its burrow with animal dung, cigarette butts, bits of paper and shredded cloth presumably to disguise its scent from predators. Once the nesting chamber is sufficiently malodorous, the female lays 6-11 eggs, which are incubated for around 28 days by both parents.
In a perfect illustration of the interdependencies at play in any ecosystem, the burrowing owl is in decline because of widespread elimination of burrowing rodents, especially prairie dogs and ground squirrels. Suburbanization and the conversion of rangeland to irrigated cropland are also challenges to its survival, as is predation by domestic pets.February 25, 2011