Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Our Alpine, Texas station, 91.7 FM (KRTP), is on low power because of winter weather. We'll restore service as soon as possible.

Burrowing Owls

Burrowing Owl. Photo: William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons.

To envision the long ago landscape before modern economic endeavors changed it, consider the Burrowing Owls, familiars of the prairie dog. The dog owls are insectivores, fond of grasshoppers and the beetles that eat the dung of grazing animals. Ground owls catch a few small mice, but a prairie dog young on its first visit above ground is too large an adversary. The prairie dog feared the now-locally-extirpated black-footed ferrets much more. The Owl’s crepuscular behavior may be a response to the prairie dog’s ceaseless diurnal busyness and raucous community gossip.

Burrowing owls are clowns. If defending food, they curtsy. Before flying, they chatter—kack-kack-kack-kack. When peaceful they coo like doves. If flightless young are approached they back into the burrow, imitating rattlesnakes with clacking noises. Upon emergence they slowly reveal the s of their heads, then their yellow eyes. To discourage mammalian predators the adult owls collect animal dung to flagstone the entrance of the burrow.

A number of Burrowing Owls have learned that streetlights and lights at sports fields attract moths and beetles, where they circle like bats snatching an easy meal. Their insectivorous habits are indicated physiologically by the leading primary feather not having a saw-toothed edge like other owls. Most insects cannot hear, so ultra-silent wings are not needed.

For the same reason Burrowing Owls molt tail feathers in the opposite fashion from other owls—from center feathers out.Burrowing owls have less of a facial disc than other owls, indicating they hunt by sight instead of sound.

Male ground owls spend the winter, while females and young usually migrate south into the intermontane prairies of Mexico. In the spring, the males prepare the nest for the soon to be incubating females in abandoned prairie dog holes in active prairie dog towns. The many owls of a prairie dog town share one hunting territory that can extend at least 7 miles from the dog town. Other owl species assiduously protect individual realms of much smaller size..

The oldest nature journal in west Texas is the Midland Naturalist’s “Phalarope”, a monthly, published since the early 1950s. In the May 1972 issue is a report, of a hole at the entrance to a city park: "A pair of Burrowing Owls have lived in this hole for three years, in spite of the thousands of cars driving by every day, the golfers practicing drives, the boys playing touch football, the whizzing minibikes tearing up the grass." Another entry records their use as a nesting site of one of the drainage holes leading from a large building at a local college.

Not only is learning how an iconic creature of a place behaves and lives important, but so is relating iconic animals to stories about human character or behavior or social propriety as a way to teach our children both science and culture..

The dog owls are like the clowns of Pueblo ritual, met unexpectedly, then behaving surprisingly. Zuni Indians considered them the underground guardians of the seed of prairie plants. Plains Indians used them as guides to buffalo, symbols of good luck that pointed the way before a hunt. The link between Prairie dogs and Burrowing Owls is mythological, part of the soul of a Llanero, a child of the Llano Estacado.

Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams of the  Sibley Nature Center.