Burrowing owl

Athene cunicularia
Species Status: Endangered in Canada

The Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia)

With fewer than 1,000 pairs thought to exist in this country, the burrowing owl is one of the most endangered birds in Canada’s prairie grasslands.

The burrowing owl is one of the smallest owl species, distinguished by its very long legs and short tail. It gets its name from its habit of nesting in burrows dug by animals such as ground squirrels, badgers and prairie dogs. Burrowing owls are also known as “Howdy Owls” because of their habit of bobbing up and down in a bowing motion, a behaviour that likely allows them to determine distance from multiple viewpoints. Young owls in the nest make a rattling sound similar to rattlesnakes to ward off predators. They are nocturnal, although unlike other owls, they are also active to a certain extent during the day. Burrowing owls feed on rodents, large insects (such as crickets, beetles and grasshoppers), and small reptiles and amphibians.


Burrowing owls can be found in prairie grasslands. They require open areas with low ground cover, burrows created by ground squirrels and prairie dogs for nesting, and abundant food to support family groups.


Burrowing owls were historically found in the grasslands of central and southwestern Canada, central and southern United States and Mexico, and South America. In Canada, burrowing owls have virtually disappeared from Manitoba. In British Columbia, they were once listed as extirpated, but a small population has been re-established, in part through our efforts. Throughout their remaining range, they exist in greatly diminished numbers in scattered nesting sites.


Habitat loss and fragmentation are the main reasons driving species decline, as shortgrass prairie habitats are converted to crop production. Efforts by farmers to reduce the numbers of ground squirrels, prairie dogs and insects means there are fewer burrows available for nesting and less prey to feed on. Moreover, the use of pesticides to eliminate insects, ground squirrels and foxes can poison owls when they eat the carcasses. Of particular concern is the use of Carbofuran, a potent insecticide used to control grasshoppers, one of the owls’ primary food sources. Badgers, foxes, skunks, weasels and snakes can also greatly reduce nesting success by preying on eggs and young, while coyotes and red-tailed hawks prey on adults.


Recommended Recovery Actions

The federal Recovery Strategy for burrowing owls calls for a number of conservation measures, including stewarding habitat, discouraging the extermination of prey species, and using predator-proof artificial nest burrows. Breeding owls to release into the wild is recognized as essential to re-establishing populations that have disappeared within their historical range.

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