5 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

Named for their distinct below-ground habits, burrowing owls scuttle over open prairie and desert floors in the western states and Florida. They’re active by day, making them easier to watch than most owls. In the western states, the owls usually dwell in prairie dog colonies, where they take over abandoned quarters. 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.

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. But here are the facts behind the myths.

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What Sounds Do Burrowing Owls Make?

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 and great horned owls.

What Do Burrowing Owls Eat?

burrowing owlCourtesy Bob Branham

When you see a prairie dog colony, take a second look at those little critters—because burrowing owls may be among them! 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, birds and mice. Burrowing owls are awake during the day more than most owls and are seen 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.

Learn how to identify eastern and western screech owls.

Where Do Burrowing Owls Nest?

burrowing owl denCourtesy Kim Stewart
Burrowing owls build dens underground

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.

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Where Do Burrowing Owls Live?

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

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

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

The burrowing owls in western states rely on holes dug by other animals. They tend to move into prairie dog towns or burrows abandoned by prairie dogs, badgers, ground squirrels or desert tortoise. Some migrate down to Mexico and even farther south in winter. Two western burrowing owl hot spots are the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado and Nina Mason Rio Salado Audubon Center in Arizona.

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Burrowing Owl Habitat

Burrowing owl pairCourtesy Mary-Ann Ingrao
Young burrowing owls

Forget the treetops—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.

Next, check out snowy owl facts (and where to find them!)

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Lori Vanover
Lori Vanover is the senior digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor's degree in agricultural and environmental communications from the University of Illinois. Lori enjoys growing vegetables and flowers for pollinators in her backyard gardens. She also is an avid bird-watcher.