Burrowing Owls

November 26, 2012 at 7:55 am (Birds- Florida, Nature, Photography, Wildlife) (, , , )

Burrowing Owl at entrance to nest cavity, Cape Coral, Florida

While going through photographs that needed editing, I discovered some great images of burrowing owls I had done several years ago in Florida.  These birds are unique among North American owls in that they actually live underground.  They are also active during the day as well as at night, hunting small mammals and insects, but will catch lizards and other little critters if the opportunity presents itself.  These long-legged owls are only 8 to 10 inches tall, but are often visible perched near their burrows, or on fences nearby.

As with many of Nature’s citizens, their populations are decreasing due to habitat loss.  Burrowing owls need open land with short grass on ground they can dig into, but more often use abandoned cavities dug by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, skunks, gopher tortoises and armadillos.   There is a more wide-ranging population in the western U.S. (Athene cunicularia hypugaea), but the Florida subspecies (A. c. floridana) is what is pictured here.

Note that the pupils of owls will each be a different size, depending on which eye is in shade and which is in sunlight

The Latin genus name Athene is from Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and just warfare.  (When I was in the Women’s Army Corps, our insignia was the Pallas Athene).   The owl was the symbol on her shield.  Many representations of her show her holding a pet owl.  That is how owls came to be associated with wisdom, but also because they are raptors, the warfare aspect seems relevant as well.

Burrowing owls often nest in small colonies, and in Florida one of the most notable populations is in Cape Coral, where over 2,500 burrows can be found in parks, fields, and in peoples’ backyards.  Many folks feel protective of “their” owls, and I wonder how many of them have been named after Harry Potter’s snowy owl “Hedwig.”    Often their burrows will be marked by wooden stakes, but the owls themselves frequently decorate the cavity openings with whatever little “treasures” they can find – shiny objects, cigarette butts, scraps of paper, etc.  Their burrows are lined with palm fronds, grass, and even cow pies or other mammal dung when they are ready to nest.  The manure attracts insects such as dung beetles, which is kind of like having room service!

This guy is getting alarmed by the intruder (me)

Local birders also told me about a few nests in a grassy field in a Boynton Beach, Florida subdivision where I was staying with a friend.  Clearly these little guys benefit from development as well, although when push comes to shove, it is usually the owl that loses.  The usual predators – foxes, hawks, and pet kitty cats kill many of these small owls, but cars often hit them, especially fledglings learning to fly.

I was not fortunate enough to see nestlings, but I have seen images from other photographers and I can tell you a family of burrowing owls is one of the cutest scenes ever.  Young owls begin appearing at the burrow when they are two weeks old, and can forage on their own and fly at about six weeks of age.

This is a warning stance – I was too close, so I backed away after a few quick photographs so I wouldn’t harass it

Because burrowing owls seem so tame, it is tempting to get too close to them.  When they start bobbing their heads, they are nervous and may be afraid to leave the nest to hunt if they feel their family is threatened.  Cape Coral is very proud of what it calls “the largest population of the Florida burrowing owl of any place in the world,” and the city posts several maps online where people can view them.  Nesting season is February through July, and I took these photographs in late February 2008.

Angry Bird #1

Angry Bird #2

All photographs and text are copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre.  You can purchase images on my gallery site – and please visit my website to see what else I do.

For more information:

Florida Natural Areas Inventory

Defenders of Wildlife

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Women’s Army Corps insignia


  1. Bob Zeller said,

    Great images, Cindy. I love these little cuties. 🙂

  2. DesertAbba said,

    really glad you were scouring through files and found these! great shots!

  3. Kathleen said,

    Never knew there were any “underground” birds. haha

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