This ground-dwelling owl occurs throughout New Mexico and the Great Plains, as well as the Rocky Mountain and desert western states, but it is uncommon everywhere. The range also extends through Central and South America. The long-legged bird is 8-10 inches tall and has a wingspan of just less than 2 feet. The mottled brown and white body is complimented by bright yellow eyes and white eyebrows.
These owls primarily hunt at night and during dawn and dusk, but are also active during the day. They catch insects on the wing but also run down or hover and pounce on a wide variety of other vertebrate prey, like lizards and snakes, amphibians, small mammals, and other birds. They are also known to collect feces of large ungulates and place that material around a burrow to attract dung beetles, which may then be taken for food.
Though they sometimes excavate their own burrows, owls normally share burrows dug by prairie dogs or g round squirrels. But, oddly enough, they seldom prey on the small mammals they live with. Owls may produce a rattling sound from the refuge of a burrow when threatened by a predator. The mimicry of a rattlesnakes warning rattle is thought to protect the owl from further pursuit by a predator. Removal of their preferred habit through the eradication of prairie dogs towns has resulted in a severe decline in burrowing owl populations in recent decades. Some owl populations have adapted to the loss of habitat by moving into urban settings, digging their own burrows on gold courses or parks, or nesting in artificial man-made nesting structures. I have seen burrowing owls on ranchland near N.M. 41 south of Moriarty, where a few scattered prairie dog burrows are present.
Burrowing owls normally produce one clutch of 6-12 eggs per year. The male brings food to the female and nestlings, which fledge after about 6 weeks. They may live 9-10 years in the wild. They are preyed upon by coyotes, badgers, feral dogs, and other carnivores, and they suffer mortality by vehicles as they travel across roads. The Audubon Society reports that the U.S. Burrowing Owl population is stable at this time. The range in New Mexico is only declining in isolated spots statewide and has shown an increase in the northern counties of San Miguel, Mora, and Colfax.
James Taulman is a semi-retired research wildlife biologist, having worked with the U.S. Forest Service research branch and taught zoology, ecology, and other courses in several university positions. He is currently living in the East Mountains, and explores natural areas observing native wildlife and conducting independent research experiments.