A Day with the Burrowing Owls
By Dan Weisz
I recently traveled to one location in Pima County where Wild At Heart relocates rescued Burrowing Owls from around the state. This site is marked “No Trespassing”. Some of the human-made burrows are visible at a distance from the side of the road. Each burrow is marked with a stake that provides a perch for the family of owls. The burrows were created with long flexible tubing that runs underground to a large inverted five-gallon container that is used as the owl’s home. Usually there is both an entrance tubing and an exit tubing for the owls.
I drove to another spot where I’ve seen a family of Burrowing Owls over the years. The first hour that I was there, I saw nothing. It was just too darn hot for these birds to be out of their burrows. After 6:00 as the sun neared the horizon, the owls came out of their burrows but sought the shade and moisture of the cornfield near their burrow. Eventually the entire family came out of the burrow. I saw 5 owls at a time, with some going in and out of the burrow.
At one point two owls were going in and out of the entrance. One of the owls began digging out the entrance to the burrow. The other owl seemed to be peeved at all of the flying dirt but he wouldn’t move. Burrowing Owls will dig with their beaks but also kick soil back using their feet. As fast and furious as this dirt was flying, I’m sure the owl inside was using its feet.
Burrowing Owls are diurnal. That means they are active during the day. They are most active at dawn and dusk but will hunt during the day and also during the night. During the day they might be found at any perch near their burrow.
Here, a Burrowing Owl is perched atop an ear of corn. This ear looks very dried out. Every once in a while that owl appeared to be nibbling at the top of the ear. I suspect there might have been insects consuming the corn and the owl was picking off the insects.
As the sun neared the horizon, the light changed to a golden glow which happens near sunset. The Burrowing Owls seemed to be at attention, waiting and watching the sun drop. Here is a close-up of one of the owls on the dirt watching the sun go down. Even at sunset is still hot enough that this bird is holding its wings to its side to aid in cooling.
Some raptors give an indication when they are going to fly out. Some don’t. Burrowing Owls are part of the group that goes from zero to 100 in an instant. The owl that we just saw standing calmly on the ground just decided to fly off, past me, to join two others that had flown to a nearby power line. You can get a sense of how long the owl’s wings are when they are extended.
The Burrowing Owls were very jumpy as the sun lowered in the sky. One owl had been sitting on the corn when suddenly it flew. Another nearby owl remained on the corn silk, the tassel of fibers that protrude from the tip of the ear of corn. It was watching the activity of the other owls. Suddenly one owl flew overhead and the owl on the corn silk watched it fly directly above it, looking ready to react.
And react it did. As soon as the other Burrowing Owl passed by, the one on the corn silk took off. Look at how long those wings are!
Moments later one Burrowing Owl flew back to the corn. When it landed, its left wing was drooped over a large leaf. The bird looked very awkward. It then raised both of its wings to try to bring the left wing back against its side. It was successful. It settled down, looked relaxed, and then glanced right at me. The Burrowing Owl's pupils are very large in this shot as the light was growing more dim.
I returned to the owl’s burrow just five days later, and was stunned at what I saw. The farmers had harvested all of the corn. What might have been one square mile of cornfield was now just stubble and bare ground. I felt bad for the owls as now the coolness of the tall cornfield was gone, as was the shade and the habitat that might have attracted more insects and prey animals. Yet the farmer had to do what the farmer had to do, and the owls have adapted to living in all sorts of environments.
The Burrowing Owls were still around, but once they came up out of the burrow, they scattered. One lone owl remained at the burrow, looking across the fields where the rest of the family had scattered. At one point it jumped straight up, and then came straight back down. Who knows what jinxed it, but it was funny to see that quick hop. Burrowing Owls are so fun to observe.
Dan Weisz is a native Tucsonan and retired educator who enjoys birding, being in nature, and taking photographs.