Shrubsteppe Species Spotlight: Western Burrowing Owl

Meet the “oddball” owl

As the only owl in the world that nests exclusively underground, the western burrowing owl is very unique. These small birds measure 7 to 11 inches tall with a wingspan of 20 to 24 inches, and weigh just 5 to 8 ounces (about the same weight as a baseball).

Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea)

Living in open grassland and shrubsteppe habitats in eastern Washington and the western United States, burrowing owls are predatory like other raptors and feed on invertebrates (especially beetles) and small mammals.

Sadly, the burrowing owl range has greatly decreased in recent decades due to habitat loss. Burrowing owls are now uncommon or rare outside of Benton, Franklin, Grant, and western Adams counties.

Life underground — finding housing for burrowing owls

Burrowing owls don’t actually dig their own burrows — instead, they use abandoned burrows of mammals to make their nests. With the decline of burrowing mammals such as badgers, ground squirrels, and yellow-bellied marmots in Washington, burrowing owl populations also suffer.

That’s why the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) started a project about a decade ago to work with private landowners and farmers to create artificial burrows on their property. In return for a place to stay, burrowing owls provide valuable pest control services for farmers by consuming large quantities of mice and voles. These artificial burrows also make it a lot easier for biologists to access and monitor the well-being of these birds.

Human-made burrow on private property — A mother burrowing owl is inside guarding her eggs.

Working together to help burrowing owls

WDFW is also partnering with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Global Owl Project to put unique tags on burrowing owls’ legs to monitor their movements and survival rates. Biologists and volunteers visit artificial burrows near Pasco, WA each nesting season to band owlets with unique number tags that can be tracked with throughout North America.

A volunteer holds a baby burrowing owl to put a unique tag on its leg.

Family life of a burrowing owl

While female burrowing owls head south for the winter to California, males generally don’t travel as far because they want to get back to nesting sites early to stake out the perfect burrow and get it ready for when females return.

Mating begins in early spring, and females generally lay 7–10 eggs and incubate them for about a month while males are in charge of bringing her food. After the young hatch, the female stays with them in the burrow for a couple weeks. Young owls set out on their own after about six weeks.

Male and female burrowing owls appear very similar, but there is an interesting way to tell them apart during nesting season. Since the male protects the nest and is outside in the sun most of the day, their feathers get sun-bleached. Meanwhile, the female stays underground to incubate the eggs, so she will look darker in color.

One of the most amazing adaptions of the burrowing owl is the defensive noise baby owls make — They have evolved to mimic the sound of rattlesnakes! So for predators reaching their nose into the burrow, they’ll be confronted with what sounds exactly like a den of rattlesnakes.

Baby burrowing owls have adapted to mimic the sound of rattlesnakes to scare off predators.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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