A burrowing owl in a field

Florida’s Burrowing Owl

The burrowing owl, Athene cunicularia, is quite the character in Florida’s landscape. This compact bird of prey is Florida’s only ground-nesting owl species.

Burrowing Owl Identification

Burrowing Owl

Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)

Burrowing owls are easily identified by their long legs and by their habit of being found on the ground. Burrowing owls are usually less than 9 inches tall with a wingspan of up to 21 inches. The have large yellow eyes topped with bold white eyebrows. Overall, burrowing owls are mottled brown and white with patches of sandy colored feathers on their chest and under their tail. Additionally, when compared to the eastern screech owl, burrowing owls have a “flattened” head without ear tufts.

To hear a burrowing owl’s call, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology webpage.

Behavior and Diet

If you’re a bird, why would you willing choose to run around on the ground and make a burrow? Don’t be fooled, burrowing owls can fly! That said, they spend most of their time on the ground, on low perches, or in their underground burrows. Most of their flying is to and from low perches near their burrows. These perches, small shrubs or fencing, provide a better view of the surrounding area.

Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are also active during the day when they can often been seen standing near their burrow or watching the surrounding ares from a nearby perch. Burrowing owls feed primarily on grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects like cockroaches and mole crickets. Given the opportunity, they will also eat small lizards and other reptiles, amphibians, or small mammals like rodents. The owls can hover in mid-air while hunting.

Burrowing owl distribution in Florida

Map courtesy of FWC

Burrowing owls live as single pairs or  in colonies of several pairs and use their burrows year-round. Burrowing owls will dig their owl burrows or use abandoned gopher tortoise burrows. Burrows are typically 4-8 feet in length.

Range and Habitat

Burrowing owls are found year-round in Florida. They are also found year round in parts of the American Southwest, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, South America and can be found in the American Mid-West during the summer breeding season.

Burrowing owls are found in most of peninsular Florida and rely on open habitat like prairies. While the species’ local populations are considered to be spotty and uncommon, some areas are seeing an increase in populations due to human-created habitats like pastures, golf courses, sporting fields, and airports.

How can YOU help?

Burrowing owls are a Florida Threatened Species. That means that they, their nests, and their burrows cannot be taken, held, or sold without a permit. Additionally, the owls themselves, their young, and their eggs are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Burrowing Owl

Photo by FWC

If you have burrowing owls in your area, consider taking one of the following conservation actions recommended by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:

  •  Install a T-Perch near existing burrowing owl burrows to satisfy the owl’s desire for an elevated view of the area. Furthermore, the perches make it easy to spot burrows from afar, thereby reducing the chances of a lawnmower or other vehicle collapsing the burrow. Additionally, you can use wooden stakes and some flagging tape to mark burrows. If these actions are to be on property you do not own, be sure to landowner permission first.
  • Reduce the use of insecticides near burrowing owl populations to reduce the chance of inadvertent owl poisoning. Remember, burrowing owls feed on insects.
  • If owls are known to be nearby and habitat is scarce, you may be able to attract a breeding pair to use your residential lawn by removing a 1-2 foot circular section of sod, exposing the sandy soil below. You could make this area even more attractive by starting the burrow and piling the sand near one side of the circle. Furthermore, add a T-Perch to help attract attention to your primed burrow location.
  • Report malicious destruction or harassment of burrowing owls or their nests. 1-888-404-FWCC (3922)
To learn more about Florida’s Owls, consider attending or watching a recording of our Wildlife Webinars. Read about 2017’s Wildlife Wednesday Webinars by clicking here.

Sources:

  • https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Burrowing_Owl/id
  • http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/birds/owls/burrowing-owl/
  • http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/imperiled/profiles/birds/burrowing-owl/
  • https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Burrowing_Owl/sounds
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/myfwcmedia/33946551623/in/album-72157683911101306/

11 Comments on “Florida’s Burrowing Owl

  1. what is different between burrowing owls and regular owls?
    Please respond i’m doing a project on these creatures

  2. Do Burrowing Owls use a nesting box? We have a wooden box 7.5′ x 7.5″x 12″ with a larger hole that was originally made for squirrels. The owl using the box looks like the burrowing owl.

  3. Can a land developer building on a golf course cover burrowing owls habitat with roads and houses. The burrowing owl designated areas have been there over 30 years for the protection of the burrowing owl.

    • Hi Karen,
      Great question. Burrowing owls and their eggs are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty and additionally, they are classified as a State Threatened species by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). As a direct quote from FWC’s website, “This means that taking, possessing, or selling burrowing owls, their nests (i.e., burrows), or eggs is prohibited without a permit (68A-27 F.A.C.).”
      If development is planned in an area with burrowing owls are present, there is the possibility that they have a permit which allows that through FWC. For questions related to Florida wildlife which are legal in nature, I recommend you speak with your local FWC office as they will have the authority to issue those permits (if applicable). You can find your local FWC office’s contact info here: http://myfwc.com/contact/fwc-staff/regional-offices/
      Thanks for reading!

  4. everyone on this website should read “hoot” by carl hiaasen its a cute childrens book about these owls.

  5. I have an adult burrowing owl which has taken up residence on my front porch. He/she has been staying on my porch or in the adjacent low trees during the day for about 3 weeks now. He/she leaves at night, presumably to hunt? I am concerned that the owl seems so isolated. Apart from being alone, it appears to be in excellent physical condition. There has been a lot of construction nearby, so it might have had its burrow disrupted. There are also many protected burrowing sites very close by, so relocation would not seem difficult for it to manage on its own.

    I know I am not supposed to make a “pet” of this owl, but we love having it as a guest. Can I do anything for him/her to improve his happiness?

    • Good morning Darcy,
      What an amazing story! Generally speaking the big things are to prevent pets and children from stressing it (aka, don’t approach it) and to never feed it, leave food out, or offer it food. We want to protect this wonderful creature by preserving its fear of humans.
      If you are OK with the owl and would like to enhance the area near the porch as habitat, you could add a wooden fence post or T shaped perch for it. They use perches like this to look out for predators and keep an eye on the nearby areas. If you see him/her sitting on your patio furniture, it may be doing the same thing. You can also limit the use of pesticides in the yard as they mainly eat insects.
      Florida burrowing owls are not nocturnal hunters, like most owls, so he/she may be retreating to their burrow at night. It’s nature, so anything is possible, but generally they are most active during the day hunting beetles, grasshoppers and even small lizards or frogs.

      For more information on this amazing protected species, check out Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website on burrowing owls: http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/birds/owls/burrowing-owl/ OR Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology’s website: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Burrowing_Owl/lifehistory

  6. Do Florida burrowing owls lay their eggs inside Underground? An owl that has eggs would be alone or with its mate?

    • Hi Marvin,

      Great question! Burrowing owls do nest underground, with clutches of 2-8 eggs in Florida. They tend to breed in the same area of other burrowing owls, in a colony of sorts, but not always.
      The female burrowing owl will usually stay very close to the burrow or inside the burrow until the chicks fledge, or in other words when can leave the nest, which can take up to two weeks. The males are territorial and will stay near the burrows to defend his “space.” The parents will care for the chicks until they are self-sufficient, usually around 12 weeks old.
      I hope that answers all your questions, but if not, check out these resources:
      https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Burrowing_Owl/overview
      https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/birds/owls/burrowing-owl/

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