Nesting burrowing owls
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. WPC has participated in burrowing owl recovery programs since 1995, in Saskatchewan, BC and now in Manitoba with the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program. The conservation techniques used in the program have been developed over the years, with proven results. The work of the team will help increase the population of this adorable endangered species.

Migratory birds are arriving back to the breeding grounds in Canada and many grassland birds have arrived in southwestern Manitoba’s mixed-grass prairie region. There are several grassland bird specialities in this part of the province. The iconic burrowing owl tops the list for many birders who flock to the southwest corner to get a glimpse of one.  Burrowing owls are charismatic little owls weighting only about 150g. Both males and female owls are a similar size and are a speckled brown colour that is perfect for camouflage. They are the only North American species of owl that nests in the ground.


As their name suggests, their unique characteristic is that they nest in burrows in the ground. Contrary to their name, they cannot actually dig their own burrows and rely on burrowing mammals such as ground squirrels, badgers and foxes to dig burrows in grasslands  – i.e. pasturelands in souythwestern Manitoba. The  Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program works with landowners to install artificial nest burrows in suitable nesting locations, made of plastic weeping tile and a bucket to protect owl families from digging predators.

These are the types of burrows that we use to reintroduce conservation-bred pairs. These burrows are covered with a large, soft-release enclosure to ensure the owls are protected and are able to get acclimated to the wild environment before release.

A release enclosure on the Manitoba prairie

A release enclosure on the Manitoba prairie. Photo: Jessica Riach

Once pairs have an established nest, the enclosure is removed and they are able to hunt for food on their own, and avoid predators.

The Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program has six pairs of conservation-release owls set up in enclosures on private land in southwestern Manitoba. A few have started to nest which is egg-cellent news!

Alexandra Israel

Napanee Biologist – Eastern Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Program

Alex completed her Master’s degree in Biology at York University, where she studied nest concealment in Wood Thrushes and how it might influence nest success in this Species at Risk. Alex also volunteers much of her time at Long Point Bird Observatory, where she assists with their migration monitoring program each year.

Alexandra Israel
About this species

The Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia)

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.

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