Burrowing Owls — Adults and Youngsters

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I’ve posted often recently about the many families of Great Horned Owls in our community. Of course, Great Horned Owls aren’t our only owl species. We have several owl species, including Burrowing Owls.

Burrowing Owls evidence the substantial diversity among owls. They may be genetically fairly close to Great Horned Owls but their appearance and behavior are quite different from that of their big cousins. Burrowing Owls are only a fraction the size of Great Horned Owls. An adult Great Horned Owl may weigh more than three pounds (more than 1.4 kg) whereas a Burrowing Owl weighs just five ounces (155 grams). A Burrowing Owl could perch comfortably on my extended finger.

Great Horned Owls are mostly crepuscular, primarily active at dusk and dawn, whereas Burrowing Owls can be active at all hours of the day.

Of course, a salient difference between Great Horned Owls and Burrowing Owls is that Burrowing Owls, alone among the owl family, and among bird species in general, live in burrows.

Burrowing Owls may be found in many locations in North and South America. There are several subspecies. Like Burrowing Owls elsewhere, in southern Arizona Burrowing Owls prefer prairies. They are particularly fond of cultivated land, often establishing their burrows at the margins of farm fields. They are not social in the sense that they live in flocks but they do tend to establish their burrows in the vicinity of other burrows. If you come across a Burrowing Owl the odds are good that you’ll see others within a few meters.

Last year was not a good breeding season for our local Burrowing Owls, probably because of the effects of our prolonged drought on prey species. Some pairs failed to produce offspring and others produced only one or two. This year seems to have been somewhat better albeit not a banner year. Driving around a few weeks ago I encountered several families with two or three youngsters at burrows’ entrances.

The young owls are extremely cute, resembling children’s plush toys. They often appear to be quite curious. In order to make the images for today’s post I parked my vehicle across the road from owls’ burrows and photographed through my driver’s side open window. The young owls often watched me with interest, at least for a few minutes. In this first image two young birds stare back at me. The mother, partly obscured, is at the rear.

It’s typical for one or both adult birds to stay by the burrow during daylight hours in order to protect the youngsters. In this next image an adult male perches on an earthen mound a few meters away from a burrow.

Male and female adult Burrowing Owls have nearly identical plumage. The males may have slightly paler plumage than the females display, especially on their heads. Some speculate that the males’ plumage becomes bleached by sunlight because they spend more time out of the burrows than do the females during the breeding season.

This next image depicts a female. The remnants of her brood patch are visible on her breast as a vertical line.

The young owls in these images are fully fledged and indeed, I saw one or two of them make clumsy and not entirely successful attempts at flight. Juvenile Burrowing Owls’ plumage differs from the adults’ plumage in that adults have marked breasts whereas the juveniles’ breasts are a solid tawny color.

Burrowing Owl families stay together for weeks after the young birds are capable of flight. Hunting skill isn’t something innate. These young birds must learn how to pursue prey — for Burrowing Owls, ranging from insects to small reptiles to mice and other small rodents and even occasionally, small birds — and they are dependent on their parents while they learn. These little owls don’t generally hunt on the wing. They are perch and pounce hunters, as is the case with many owl species. However, unlike other owls, Burrowing Owls have long legs relative to their bodies and they are capable of pursuing some prey on the ground.

Images made with a Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 IS L zoom lens+Canon RF 1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO). Settings varied.

5 Replies to “Burrowing Owls — Adults and Youngsters”

  1. picpholio says:

    Always nice to see the offspring this time of the year. Great shots Steven. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Diarmuid Breatnach says:

    Great photos and very informative text. I hope it’s ok to share on Rebel Breeze blog with full credit, of course?

  3. Sherry Felix says:

    You are so lucky to see them. Burrowing owls are on my bucket list. Charming photographs.

  4. Beautiful series of images! Enjoyed seeing them!

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