The Most Unusual Owls in Marana

Burrowing owls (Athene cuniculaira) are somewhat comical looking, with long legs and big yellow eyes.

A few facts about burrowing owls:

  • These little owls are only about 10 inches tall, with brown speckled feathers and white eyebrows.
  • Burrowing owls live in open areas without trees or other high perches that a predatory hawk could perch on.
  • They eat grasshoppers, mice, other insects and small mammals, and reptiles
  • Cowboys called them the “howdy owls” because they would bob their heads as the cowboys rode by.
  • Learn more at All About Birds

What Makes Them So Unusual?

  • Unlike most hawks and owls, burrowing owls live in burrows underground.
  • Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are active during the day
  • Their species name, cunicularia, means “miner” in Latin.
  • Burrowing owls usually depend on other species like prairie dogs and badgers that dig underground burrows to provide them with homes.
  • Baby owls can make a noise that sounds like a rattlesnake if they feel threatened in their burrow

So, How Are They Doing?

Sadly, these feisty little owls with big personalities are declining in numbers throughout much of their range.

  • Their underground burrows are disappearing because prairie dogs and other digging mammals have been exterminated.
  • Burrowing owls are also losing their homes as ground is cleared for new construction projects.
  • They also have many enemies, including hawks, owls, badgers, cats, dogs, skunks, and foxes.
  • They are listed as endangered in Canada and as threatened in Mexico.
  • This species is protected in Arizona under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and under AZ Revised Statute Title 17-235.

Where Might We See Them Around Marana?

They can be found in open urban areas, at golf courses, airports, and other places where burrows are available. In Marana they can be spotted in the agricultural areas where they often make their homes in erosion holes under concrete-lined ditches. This provides a nice air-conditioned summer home when the cool irrigation water is flowing above them. Even though these owls are active during the day (mostly in the morning and late afternoon), they are not easily spotted because of their cryptic earth-tone coloration. They also tend to just peek out of their holes and lower their heads like a periscope if they see someone coming.

How Can We Help Burrowing Owls?

Fortunately, a system has been devised to exclude the owls from their burrows (preferably either prior to, or after breeding season) to ensure they are not physically harmed. A group in Arizona called Wild at Heart works diligently to actively relocate owls to areas with artificial burrows. A US Fish & Wildlife Service permit is necessary for this activity.

  • You can help burrowing owls by watching for them whenever you are open areas, and please alert the Arizona Game & Fish Department or Wild at Heart if you are aware of ground-disturbing activities that could harm the owls.
  • If we all keep a lookout to protect these beneficial owls we can help maintain a species that has survived millions of years, but which is now struggling in the face of habitat destruction.

By: Janine Spencer, M.A. Wildlife Management

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