Burrowing Owl: Athene cunicularia
The burrowing owl is a pint-sized bird that lives in open,
treeless areas. The burrowing owl spends most of its time on the
ground, where its sandy brown plumage provides camouflage from
potential predators. One of Florida's smallest owls, it averages
nine inches in height with a wingspan of 21 inches. The burrowing
owl lacks the ear tufts of the more familiar woodland owls. Bright
yellow eyes and a white chin accent the face. Unusually long legs
provide additional height for a better view from its typical
The Florida burrowing owl occurs throughout the state although
its distribution is considered local and spotty. The presence of
burrowing owls is primarily dependent upon habitat. Humans have
created new habitat for burrowing owls by clearing forests and
draining wetlands. Burrowing owls inhabit open native prairies and
cleared areas that offer short groundcover including pastures,
agricultural fields, golf courses, airports, and vacant lots in
residential areas. Historically, the burrowing owl occupied the
prairies of central Florida. Recently, these populations have
decreased because of disappearing habitat while populations in
south Florida coastal areas have increased due to modification of
habitat by humans.
Burrowing owls live as single breeding pairs or in loose
colonies consisting of two or more families. Unlike most owls,
burrowing owls are active during both day and night. During the
day, they are usually seen standing erect at the mouth of the
burrow or on a nearby post. When disturbed, the owl bobs in
agitation and utters a chattering or clucking call. In flight,
burrowing owls typically undulate as if they are flying an
invisible obstacle course. They also can hover in midair, a
technique effective for capturing food.
Burrowing owls use burrows year-round; for roosting during the
winter and for raising young during the breeding season (Feb -
July). Florida's owls typically dig their own burrows but will use
gopher tortoise or armadillo burrows. Burrows extend 4 to 8 feet
underground and are lined with materials such as grass clippings,
feathers, paper, and manure.
Burrowing owls mainly eat insects, especially grasshoppers and
beetles. They can be of special benefit in urban settings since
they also consume roaches and mole crickets. Other important foods
are small lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, and rodents.
Eggs are primarily laid in March but nesting can occur from
October through May. The female lays six to eight eggs over a
one-week period. She will incubate the eggs for 21 to 28 days.
At hatching, the young owls are covered with white downy
feathers and have their eyes closed. They emerge from the burrow
when they are 2 weeks old. At 4 weeks, they are learning to fly but
cannot fly well until 6 weeks old. They remain with their parents
until they are 12 weeks old.
The Florida burrowing owl is classified as a "species of special
concern" by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
This means burrows, owls, and their eggs are protected from
harassment and/or disturbance by state law. Burrowing owls are also
protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
What You Can Do To Help
- Install T-perches near owl burrows. Perches provide burrowing
owls with an elevated view of the nest area, and also make the
burrows more visible to mowing machine operators. Many burrows
collapse each year when mower tires pass near the burrow entrance.
If you put up perches, be sure that you keep the grass and weeds
trimmed low around the burrow to give the owls the unobstructed
view that they need to avoid predators.
- Restrict use of pesticides. Because burrowing owls feed on
insects that are considered pests around homes, they are exposed to
the insecticides you use. Pesticides decrease and possibly
contaminate food available to owls. Explore options other than
using pesticides, but if you continue to use them, please do so
- Attracting owls to your lawn. Burrowing owls may dig burrows in
sodded yards if vacant lots are scarce. To attract a pair, remove a
1-2 foot circular plug of sod from the lawn. This exposes the sandy
soil needed by the owls for burrowing. You might also start the
burrow and place a pile of loose sand near the mouth. Placing a
T-perch near the burrow can help draw it to a pair's
- Report malicious destruction or harassment of burrowing owls or
their nests. 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).