The burrowing owl is one of the smallest owl species and, as its name suggests, one of only a few owls that live the majority of their life on the ground. These unique birds live in burrows in the plains and deserts of North and South America.
Burrowing owls require open grassland, prairie, or desert habitats. Occasionally they will also take up residence in agricultural fields. These birds rarely dig out their burrows. Instead, they commonly nest in the same areas as burrowing mammals, such as prairie dogs.
In this article, we will discuss the distribution and habitat of the burrowing owl in greater detail. Read on to discover more about these fascinating birds!
Burrowing Owls are usually found in desert, grassland or prairie habitats
The burrowing owl has a wide distribution range throughout North and South America. These birds are found throughout the grassland, desert, and plains regions of the western United States, Canada, and Mexico. Burrowing owls also live in Central and South America, where suitable habitat occurs.
Burrowing Owl in flight
Suitable burrowing owl habitat varies slightly between breeding and wintering ranges. Breeding range habitat generally includes open, sparsely vegetated areas within desert, grassland, or steppe ecosystems. These owls occasionally reside in “human-influenced” environments also, including agricultural fields, cemeteries, vacant lots, golf courses, and fairgrounds.
Because these owls use existing burrows for nesting, they are often found in areas where other burrowing mammals live. Prairie dog towns within the burrowing owl’s habitat are one of the most common places to find them.
Generally, existing burrows are crucial for the owl when determining a nest site. However, a Florida subspecies of burrowing owl excavates its own underground nests.
Burrowing owls are less particular about winter roosting habitat. Overall, their habitat necessities remain much the same, open and sparsely vegetated.
However, the burrowing owl is far less likely to stick to one roosting site and may choose more artificial “burrows”, such as construction pipes, culverts, or piles of debris.
Burrowing Owl outside of nesting hole
Burrowing owl populations have suffered due to loss of habitat. Thus, it is rare to see them, particularly near areas populated by people.
The best places to see burrowing owls are desert, grassland, or prairie habitats where other burrowing mammals are present.
Find a prairie dog town to visit in the early morning hours and sit quietly with a pair of binoculars. If a burrowing owl or nesting pair is present, you will see them flying about as they hunt insects and small mammals.
Burrowing Owl on the lookout for food at sunset
Burrowing owls are awake throughout the day, but are typically most active at dawn and dusk. These are the best times for the owl to hunt because insects and small mammals are more active at these times.
In the heat of the day, burrowing owls can still be found sitting outside of their burrow or roosting on a fence post, but they are generally less active at this time.
The majority of burrowing owl populations are non-migratory, meaning they stay in one place year-round. Permanent residents include those living in Florida, the southwestern United States, Mexico, and South America.
Migratory burrowing owl populations include those living in Canada and regions of the US outside of the southwest. Winters in these areas are too cold and snowy for the burrowing owl to remain year-round. Thus, birds breeding in these regions migrate to the southwest and Mexico.
A pair of Burrowing Owls perched on a post with tilted heads
Within the US, burrowing owls reside throughout most western states. Populations are found in the grasslands and deserts of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and California.
Burrowing owls are also present in the prairies and plains of North and South Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas. In addition, a subspecies of burrowing owls (floridana) is a year-round resident in the grasslands of central and south Florida.
Canada's burrowing owl populations breed throughout southeast Alberta and Saskatchewan. Small populations are also found in southwest Manitoba and interior British Columbia.
Burrowing Owl protecting the nesting hole
Burrowing owls are present throughout much of Central and South America to the very southern tip of the continent in Tierra del Fuego. Populations are also present in Hispaniola, Cuba, Bahamas, the north Lesser Antilles, and off the west coast of Mexico.
Burrowing owls in Canada and most of the US migrate to the desert southwest states, including southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Some move as far south as Mexico for the winter months.
Within the US, populations are present year-round in Florida and the southernmost regions of the southwest. Though occurrences are rare, individuals have been recorded as far north as Montana in winter.
Mexico and South America burrowing owls are also permanent residents, primarily remaining in their territories throughout winter. However, Central American populations may migrate slightly south to Honduras and Guatemala.
During the winter, most northern-based Burrowing Owls migrate to southern desert states
In the summer months, migratory burrowing owl populations return to their breeding grounds in the plains and prairies of the western United States and Canada. Populations in Florida, Mexico, Central, and South America remain much unchanged.
Unlike most other owl species, burrowing owls are more social than solitary. They often live in groups of up to several hundred of their kind. As previously mentioned, these raptors also frequently share space with other species, particularly burrowing mammals.
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