When someone mentions owls, you probably think about big, nocturnal birds that spend their time amongst the trees of forested areas. But in the desert of Southern Nevada you might come across a very different type of owl: the burrowing owl. Calling Nevada and other southwest and central states home during their summer breeding season, burrowing owls are curious little creatures that you’ll want to keep an eye out for!
While burrowing owls have the beak shape and large eyes we associate with any type of owl, they also have some interesting physical characteristics that set them apart from other species. With an average body length between 8 and 11 inches, this owl is about the same size as a blue jay or robin, and has long legs to help it sprint through the desert. Most adult burrowing owls are brown with a series of white spots, but males often appear lighter in color, as their feathers become sun bleached after spending more time outside during the day.
You’ve probably guessed from their names that burrowing owls make their homes in burrows instead of nesting in trees. Living in deserts and open shrub lands, these crafty little birds take over abandoned burrows dug by other animals like gophers or badgers. Once they’ve found an appropriate burrow, the owls build a nest inside of it, using organic material found nearby. Cattle dung is one of the most common materials used to make a burrowing owl’s nest, which might sound unappealing, but helps to attract insects that make up part of the owl’s diet. Besides feasting on the insects drawn in by their smelly nests, burrowing owls perch on rocks, bushes, and fenceposts looking for prey, and will fly or run in pursuit of insects and small rodents.
Because of their small size, burrowing owls are preyed upon by desert carnivores like rattlesnakes and coyotes, along with domestic cats and dogs near residential areas. One interesting way that the burrowing owl has learned to protect itself from threats is by retreating to its burrow and mimicking the hissing and rattling sounds of a rattlesnake. By using the same warning mechanism as the dangerous venomous snake, a burrowing owl may trick a predator into giving up the chase.
One of the biggest challenges facing these owls is loss of habitat. Because their nesting behaviors are closely linked to those of other burrowing animals like ground squirrels, changes that affect the populations of other burrowers can show themselves in burrowing owl populations. Luckily for conservation efforts, burrowing owls are quite happy to nest in man-made burrows. Some burrowing owl populations have been successfully relocated by installing one-way trap doors on current burrows, and adding perches and burrows to a nearby area that the owls are known to frequent. Once they discover their current burrows have been closed off, they usually relocate to the man-made burrows within a few days.
Next time you travel to Nevada, taking a trip outside of city limits might lead you to spot these cute and crafty little birds. Look out for the bright yellow eyes perched on shrubs and fenceposts, or see the long legged owl sprinting across the desert in pursuit of its next meal!