8 Fascinating Burrowing Owl Facts

Forget the treetops—a burrowing owl nests underground. Some use the dens of other animals. Look for these small owls in western states and southern Florida.

burrowing owlsCourtesy Sharon Volker
Burrowing owls in South Florida

Burrowing owls are among the few birds that spend time underground. Birds in the Florida population dig their own subterranean tunnels, while the western owls rely on burrows excavated by badgers, prairie dogs and other diggers. Learn fascinating burrowing owl facts behind the myths.

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What Sounds Do Burrowing Owls Make?

burrowing owlCourtesy Bob Branham

When they’re disturbed, young burrowing owls make a harsh buzz that sounds very much like the rattle of a snake. Hearing that sound from deep in a burrow may be enough to make humans (and other animals) stay away.

Psst—learn more about northern saw-whet owls.

What Do Burrowing Owls Eat?

253731726 1 Susan Perez Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Susan Perez
Burrowing owl eating a beetle

These small owls don’t eat the animals whose burrows they move into; instead, they share watchdog duties. Beetles are a favorite food, along with other insects, lizards, small birds and mice.

Learn how to identify eastern and western screech owls.

Where Do Burrowing Owls Nest?

burrowing owl denCourtesy Kim Stewart
Burrowing owls build dens underground

When you see a prairie dog colony, take a second look at those little critters—because burrowing owls may be among them! An oddity in the owl world, burrowing owls are among the few bird species to nest underground. Other underground nesters include bank swallows, belted kingfishers and Atlantic puffins.

So fluffy! Check out these adorable baby owl pictures.

They Form Lifelong Bonds

Burrowing owls often mate for life. Multiple pairs may form loose colonies in preferred nesting habitats.

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Burrowing Owl Nickname

An old western nickname for the burrowing owl is “howdy owl,” because it appears to nod its head as a way of saying hello. Cowboys had many legends about these birds, including that the owls, prairie dogs and rattlesnakes would live together peacefully in the same burrow. They don’t, of course.

Barn owls are ghostly nocturnal birds of prey.

These Owls Are Active in Daytime

burrowing owlsCourtesy William Lax / Country magazine

Burrowing owls are awake during the day more than most owls, making them easier to watch. You can see them hunting insects and small vertebrates in the open areas they call home. However, they look for food day and night, taking naps by their burrow entrances in between hunts.

Find out why the great horned owl is the greatest nocturnal hunter.

Range Map: Where Do Burrowing Owls Live?

burrowing owl perching on postCourtesy Adrienne Jones
Burrowing owl on a gate in Carlsbad, New Mexico

Named for their distinct below-ground habits, burrowing owls scuttle over open prairie and desert floors in the western states and Florida. Looking at the burrowing owl range map, you’d think there was a mistake. It’s hard to believe that a bird so widespread in the West is also found in southern Florida, but that’s the case.

Burrowing Owls in Florida

Unlike their western cousins, the Florida owls regularly excavate their own homes. A burrowing owl pair may dig a tunnel 10 feet long in only two days.

In southern Florida, many burrowing owls live in vacant lots in towns, and some communities proudly adopt and protect local colonies. The best place to see burrowing owls in Florida is in Cape Coral. You’ll likely see at least a few of the 1,000-plus nesting pairs during your visit. Unlike those out west, Florida burrowing owls dig their own burrows.

“There is a lot of vacant land across the street from my house, which offers plenty of space for burrowing owls that nest there in underground burrows. The city places PVC pipes and rope around the nests, so the mowers know where the nests are. They are typically most active here in June,” says Carrol Betts of Chiefland, Florida.

Western Burrowing Owls

In the western states, the owls rely on holes dug by other animals. They usually dwell in prairie dog colonies, or burrows abandoned by prairie dogs, badgers, ground squirrels or desert tortoise.

Two western burrowing owl hot spots are the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado and Nina Mason Rio Salado Audubon Center in Arizona. Some migrate down to Mexico and even farther south in winter.

Learn how to attract owls to nest in your backyard.

Burrowing Owl Habitat

Burrowing owl pairCourtesy Mary-Ann Ingrao
Young burrowing owls

Don’t look for these birds in trees. Burrowing owls spend most of their lives close to the ground, hunting and managing the nest in their underground dens. They group together in colonies in deserts and grasslands. You can also look for burrowing owls perched on fence posts or other low perches, swiveling their heads from side to side.

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Lori Vanover
Lori has 20 years of experience writing and editing home, garden, birding and lifestyle content for several publishers. As Birds & Blooms senior digital editor, she leads a team of writers and editors sharing birding tips and expert gardening advice. Since joining Trusted Media Brands 13 years ago, she has held roles in digital and print, editing magazines and books, curating special interest publications, managing social media accounts, creating digital content and newsletters, and working with the Field Editors—Birds & Blooms network of more than 50 backyard birders. Passionate about animals and nature, Lori has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural and Environmental Communications from the University of Illinois. In 2023, she became certified as a Wisconsin Extension Master Gardener, and she is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and sits on the organization's Publications Advisory Committee. She frequently checks on her bird feeders while working from home and tests new varieties of perennials, herbs and vegetable plants in her ever-growing backyard gardens.