Let's Talk About Birds: Burrowing owl
With its alert stance, piercing yellow-eyed stare, scowling expression, and animated posturing, the burrowing owl would make a great cartoon character.
Very long legs give this resident of flat, mostly treeless grassland and desert habitats a good view of passing predators and prey. It also will take advantage of a fence post or a dirt mound to get an even better look around.
Unlike most owls, burrowing owls often can be seen during the day, but they hunt mostly at dawn and dusk, feeding on small mammals, large insects such as beetles, dragonflies and grasshoppers, and occasionally small birds, frogs and reptiles. Also unlike other owls, their call is not a series of "whos," "hoots" or "toots," but rather a loud, almost rooster-like "KOO-COOO!" given at intervals.
The global distribution of burrowing owls extends for an incredible 7,500 miles, from the short grass prairies of southwestern Canada through the deserts of the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico, through the savannahs of Central America, to the cold steppes of Argentina at the tip of South America. A separate, or disjunct, eastern population lives in Florida and parts of the West Indies.
As its name implies, the burrowing owl is one of few owl species that lives underground, either in a burrow that it digs itself or, more often, in the abandoned burrows of small mammals such as prairie dogs or ground squirrels.
Burrowing owls are endangered or threatened throughout much of North America, primarily due to loss of habitat from land development and conversion of open rangeland to intensive irrigation-dependent agriculture. In some places, though, inadvertent creation of artificial "prairies," such as golf courses and wide grassy strips between airport runways, has attracted thriving populations of burrowing owls. In some instances, wildlife biologists have successfully encouraged owls to occupy new protected areas by installing artificial nesting burrows.
About two months ago, the range of the burrowing owl reached to Pittsburgh. That's when two of these interesting little birds took up residence at the National Aviary. They came by way of the Sacramento Zoo -- one was hatched there, and the other was an injured bird from southern California that was rehabilitated at the zoo but, unfortunately, did not regain enough of its natural flight ability to be released back into the wild.
Burrowing owls are a new species for the National Aviary, and we have provided them with their own glass-cased desert exhibit, near Penguin Point and the Flitezone Theater. The birds are slowly but surely getting used to their new "digs," which include a hidden burrow and a small portal window that will enable visitors to peek at them even when the owls are hiding "underground."
First Published June 27, 2012 12:00 am