Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Burrowing Owls

It's hard to deny: Burrowing owls are cool.

And while that might not be objective, how else to describe a soda pop can-sized owl that lives underground?

Last evening, Katie McVey, environmental education specialist for the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge, presented a program on her burrowing owl research to the Golden Eagle Audubon Society.

Katie and others have studied these owls at the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area for years by building artificial dens and conducting extensive research on nesting success, diet and owl habits.

The Snake River area has one of the highest densities of burrowing owls in the country, creating an excellent environment to learn more about these curious creatures.

The owls have very interesting habits. They move into abandoned holes dug by badgers and other mammals, and hatch large broods of chicks (one in the area hatched 16).

They feed on a variety of smaller critters, including mice, voles, scorpions, grasshoppers and small snakes. They catch as much as they can and deposit an extra prey underground in a cache, to be eaten when the hunting isn't as good.

Owls may be doing well in Idaho, but lots of owls are living near agricultural fields which raises some conservation concerns. Can they thrive alongside agriculture? Does this expose them to new dangers? What if those farms are developed? These are all questions being explored by the researchers.

About 95% of Idaho's burrowing owls migrate, most likely to southern California, for the winter. Some are already showing back up at the Birds of Prey area, according to local birders.

They are found in grassland areas of the United States as well as Central and South America.

In fact, I took these photos on the expansive Llanos grasslands of Colombia, where the owls were amazingly abundant. Riding horseback across the plains, it was not unusual to encounter dozens of them. Every time I encountered them they made me smile--with their big eyes and curious look.

Unlike almost all other owls, burrowing owls are active during the day. So keep your eye out in southern Idaho this spring: you might just be rewarded with a sighting of this interesting little bird.--Matt Miller


Bill S. said...


Great job on the article on burrowing owls. I have been working a parliment of 11 long-eared owls. What a joy.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your burrowing owl posting! Thank you. The pictures are great!

I live in Southern Idaho. (Twin Falls area) Could you recommend a place to go looking for these creatures?

TNC-Idaho said...

Thanks for your comment. I have had good luck looking for burrowing owls in grassy patches around the Snake River Birds of Prety National Conservation Area. I have not seen them near Twin Falls, but know they are there. Look for them on the edge of ag field, where there is a mix of open (non-agricultural land) and cultivated fields. The owls don't seem to mind cheatgrass. They are looking for rodents like voles, so "edges" where they can hunt and see well are great.

Good luck! said...

I would love to know more about Burrowing Owls, conservation efforts, and their habitat along the Snake River. Currently, I live in the Portland, Or area but grew up in Owyhee County. I had no idea Canyon County was so rich with these birds. My goal for the next visit to Boise, is to see Burrowing Owls and Long-eared Owls. Any advice would be deeply appreciated.