1. Burrowing owls cannot actually dig their own burrows.

Burrowing owls are very unique little owls. They are the only North American owl that nest underground. They require a burrow for nesting, but rely on burrowing mammals such as badgers, foxes and ground squirrels to excavate burrows for them. Part of my work with the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program is to install artificial nest burrows in suitable pastureland around southwestern Manitoba. The owls appear to prefer the artificial nest burrows even when natural burrows are available. In the last three seasons, we have observed several owls and pairs using artificial nest burrows.

Installation of an artificial nest burrow. Photo: Jessica Riach

Regardless of which type of burrow they nest in, burrowing owls decorate the burrows. They kick around the dirt a bit in the burrow and around the entrance and line the burrow with dried cow manure.

2. Owls can rotate their heads almost all the way around.

Humans can only rotate our heads 180°, from shoulder to shoulder. Burrowing owls can rotate their heads 270°, meaning they can look back over their shoulders to see behind them. They are able do this because they have 14 bones in their neck – seven additional bones compared to humans. Without this swiveling neck, they would be unable to keep an eye out for predators, as their eyes are immobile, unable to move around in their sockets like human eyes can.

3. A family of burrowing owls can consume 7,000 insects and 1,800 rodents in one season.

Burrowing owls eat mostly insects. Eighty percent of their diet consists of insects such as grasshoppers, dragonflies, and beetles. The other 20% includes a combination of frogs, snakes, salamanders, rodents, small birds and even smaller ground squirrels. We determine their diet by analysing their pellets. A pellet is regurgitated daily and is composed of indigestible material like bones, fur, and exoskeleton.

A pellet full of insect parts. Photo: Jessica Riach

4. There fewer than five pairs of wild owls left in Manitoba.

Burrowing owls are listed as an Endangered species in Manitoba. Their population has decreased from 76 pairs in the 1980’s to only one pair in 1996. This drastic population decline is due to many factors but the most challenging of all is habitat loss. They require burrows in flat, open grassland and unfortunately much suitable land has been converted to other land use. The owls also face challenges during their long migration like finding safe stop over locations, burrows, food, and inclement weather. Unfortunately, being a small owl that spends a lot of time on the ground means there are a lot of natural predators on the ground and in the sky, like larger owls, hawks, coyotes, foxes, badgers, racoons, and skunks.

5. Female and male burrowing owls are not sexually dimorphic.

In many species, it is easy to identify male and female by looking at them, based on their colouring, height, size or shape. With burrowing owls, this is not the case. Female and males look almost the same making it difficult to differentiate with a quick glance. During the breeding season, there are a few ways we can figure out who is who. Male burrowing owls will call coo-coo to attract females and to protect their burrow from other males. Females do not make this call. Males usually return earlier to the area to scope out the best territory (burrows). Female owls will develop a brood patch in preparation for incubating eggs. She will lose a patch of feathers on her lower abdomen so the eggs can have contact with her warm skin during incubation. Another way to determine sex in the breeding season is observe the pair after the nesting stage. The female is the sole incubator of the eggs and remains mostly in the burrow for 30 days. As she has been down the burrow incubating eggs her feathers appear much darker in colour than the male, whose feathers become sun-bleached being out in the sun everyday.

An image from one of our trail cameras. The adults are the ones looking at the camera.

Its impossible to determine the sex of young burrowing owls without a blood test. We take a small blood sample from each young every year when we band young. This is especially important for the program’s future breeding season to ensure we have a balance of females and males to pair the following year.

This year 14 young owls were produced from our nesting pairs. These young owls, along with their parents are now released into the wild to join the wild population. They will continue to grow and learn how to hunt leaving the Manitoba prairie in September and October. We hope to see some of them return back to Manitoba next year!

Jessica Riach

Field Technician – Burrowing Owl Recovery

Jessica achieved a Bachelor of Science degree at Brandon University before pursuing an education to become a Registered Veterinary Technologist. She has a keen interest in animals of all sorts but her seven years working with the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program has created a special place in her heart for these unique birds.

Photo: Alexandra Froese