At the opposite end of the size scale to giant predators such as the great horned owl and the great gray owl is the tiny burrowing owl, widespread across grasslands and deserts of the southwestern U.S.
But do you know just how small a burrowing owl is? And does its size affect its ability to hunt successfully? If you’re interested in learning more about how big burrowing owls are compared to other well-known birds, then please keep reading.
Burrowing owls are medium-sized birds but are small in comparison to other owls. They stand no more than around 25 cm (9.8 in) in height. A ground-dwelling species, the burrowing owl’s size allows it to make use of burrows of prairie dogs and other small mammals for nesting shelter.
Unlike typically larger owls, burrowing owls are adept at getting around on foot as well as by flying, and their long legs enable them to run across desert terrain in pursuit of prey or with a successful kill gripped in their bills.
Perhaps not the most intimidating owl in terms of appearance, the reputation of burrowing owls as fearsome predators should not be underestimated.
Despite their inferior size, they have been observed to successfully hunt and kill prey as large as rabbits, doves and lizards. By hunting both during daylight and nighttime hours, these tiny birds of prey maximize their chances of finding food.
If you’d like to know more about how burrowing owls prove the theory that size isn’t everything, then please read on!
Despite seeming tiny to other owls, Burrowing Owls are still classified as a medium-sized bird
Unlike many owl species, there is no difference in height between male and female burrowing owls. Adult birds are in the range of 19 cm to 25 cm (7 to 9.8 in) long. Their unusually long legs give their height a boost.
The wingspan of an adult burrowing owl is between 50.8 cm and 61 cm (20 in to 24 in), similar in size to that of a magpie.
Burrowing Owl in flight, with full wingspan on show
The average weight of burrowing owls is in the range of 150 g to 170 g (5.3 oz to 6 oz).
Mass can vary throughout the year, with egg-bearing females noticeably heavier at the start of the breeding season. Minimum weight for the species can be as low as 120 g (4.2 oz) or occasionally as high as 230 g (8.1 oz).
Burrowing owls are tiny in comparison to humans, with even the largest individuals not reaching a foot tall. The smallest burrowing owls could easily fit into the palm of an adult human’s hand.
Despite being small in stature, the wingspan of a burrowing owl is fairy sizable compared to its body size, and when outstretched measures around one-third the height of a 6-ft adult.
Close up of a Burrowing Owl
Prey commonly hunted by burrowing owls include bats, mice and small rodents, insects and invertebrates, and birds. Doves, weighing almost the same as burrowing owls, are often caught and eaten.
Depending on the habitat, snakes, lizards, frogs and toads are also hunted by hungry burrowing owls. Prey is caught with the feet, but usually carried in the beak, which limits the size of items that a burrowing owl can successfully carry.
When feeding young, small prey items, such as caterpillars and grasshoppers are usually caught by females hunting in the daytime and brought to the nest. In contrast, during the nesting period, males will hunt during dusk and dawn, and usually bring small rodents for their young to eat.
Burrowing Owl perched on a rock
Burrowing owls spend much of their lives at ground level, and being so small enables them to live in burrows, where they can safely shelter from predators. Their size allows them to sometimes make use of burrows dug by small mammals, particularly prairie dogs or squirrels, meaning that they do not need to exert a lot of effort in creating or finding a suitable nesting cavity.
As burrowing owls are so tiny, they do not need to live in a vast range or territory as they are able to fulfill their hunting needs from a much smaller area. Burrowing owls are also adapted to eat fruit and seeds, unlike larger owl species.
Because burrowing owls are unable to rely on their size to intimidate or dominate potential prey, they have developed some pretty cool adaptations to ensure their survival.
They are able to make a convincing rattlesnake hissing noise from deep within their burrows, to deter any potential predators from entering their space.
Burrowing owl outside of the nest, with young chick (owlet)
Burrowing owls are slightly larger in size than American robins, and are roughly the same size as meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds. They are marginally smaller in height than a blue jay, although with a wider wingspan.
Compared to penguins – another bird family that is commonly seen in an upright posture – the burrowing owl is even smaller than the smallest penguin species, the little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor), which stands at between 30 cm and 33 cm (12 in to 13 in) tall.
Burrowing owls, however, are not the smallest owl species in the world. Elf owls (Micrathene whitneyi), native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico are significantly smaller, measuring a tiny 12.5 cm to 14.5 cm and weighing only around 40 g (1.4 oz).
At the opposite end of the scale, the Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) and Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) both measure around 75 cm in height, around three times taller than the biggest burrowing owls. These giant predators eclipse the burrowing owl in wingspan too,
Burrowing owls are not the smallest owl species
Burrowing owls stand at a height of between 19 cm and 25 cm (7 to 9.8 in) from the end of their talon to the top of their heads. Their extra-long legs account for a significant percentage of this height.
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