Burrowing owls are adorable, but need some help

  • By Sharon Wootton Special to The Herald
  • Friday, June 28, 2013 4:04pm
  • Life

Inside the hole, an unseen force was tossing the dirt out through the opening in the ground.

A burrowing owl was doing some housekeeping in its Eastern Washington home.

The round-headed white and brown owls are 8- to 10-inches tall with long legs.

They are the only raptors to nest underground, usually at the ends of 6- to 10-foot tunnels.

State wildlife biologist Sara Gregory has been studying the owls in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the nonprofit Global Owl Project (www.globalowlproject.com).

Burrowing owls are a state species of concern, but if the population continues to slide, it could become threatened or endangered, depending on population trends. The decline is occurring all across its range in North America.

“It’s not in dire straits but with rapid habitat conversion (to farming) there is concern for shrub-steppe-associated species,” Gregory said.

“Ecologically, now is the time to take a hard look at what we have left in a patchwork habitat that we’ve created, and make some decisions what to save and what to let go under the tiller.

“It’s a pivotal time right now for all shrub-steppe animals,” Gregory said.

Burrowing owls don’t build nesting sites from scratch but use burrows dug by other animals, including coyotes and badgers.

“They do some housekeeping but we don’t know how extensive their abilities are. They’re an interesting ecological link to the landscape,” she said.

While they eat mostly insects, the owls also prey on small mammals and birds.

In an effort to stop their numbers from declining, artificial burrows are being put in place in natural habitat.

“It seems that what’s going on outside the burrows is important, too. If the grass is too tall, they won’t use it because they can’t see (danger). They’d rather have a sightline,” Gregory said.

Burrowing owls are fairly vulnerable to pesticides used in farming, or they can be hit by cars (one was hit by train) when they nest alongside a highway.

Coyotes, badgers and hawks feed on burrowing owls. And the poisoning of small animals in fields can lead to death too.

Most burrowing owls migrate south each winter and then return mid-February to late March to breed in the warm, dry climate.

Females arrive a little later than males. Many will return to the same area, sometimes the same burrow.

The number of owlets may depend on the abundance of food.

While eagles and orcas have a following dedicated to their preservation, burrowing owls fall into the cute category, but relatively few people know about them.

“There is a case to be made, or a sales pitch to be developed, around burrowing owls. Once you look in the face of an owl, it’s kind of mesmerizing. They’re a very endearing charismatic animal … definitely potential to get people interested in them,” Gregory said.

To watch burrowing owls, check out wdfw.wa.gov/wildwatch.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

More in Life

Are you a poor speller? You might have a learning disability

Jennifer Bardsley has a hard time spelling words correctly. And it’s not her fault.

A rookie’s guide to traveling in France

If you’re a first-time visitor to Paris, here are some more tips.

A gray whale prepares to dive Sunday afternoon on Possession Sound on March 11, 2018. (Kevin Clark / The Daily Herald)
A whale tour tale: Guaranteed sightings with Island Adventure

The tours are between March and May when gray, minke, orca and humpback are feeding here.

Passengers await docking a ferry on the Mukilteo-Clinton run. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
A cruising guide to sailing aboard a Washington state ferry

Here are 10 ways to make the most of an affordable day on the iconic white-and-green boats.

The parenting power struggle: Are you spoiling your kids?

Follow these guidelines the next time your child has a temper tandtrum to get what she wants.

Robert Horton began reviewing movies for The Daily Herald in 1983. (Submitted photo)
Herald reviewer elected to National Society of Film Critics

With his lifetime appointment, Robert Horton joins a membership of the top film critics in the U.S.

This column will build up your knowledge about bird nests

Sharon Wootton gathered some interesting facts all about birds and their nests.

Leonard Bernstein, social activist, is focus of new exhibit

Bernstein thrilled millions around the world with his compositions before his death in 1990 at age 72.

Gardening tools: Experts help through hotline, drop-in clinics

The WSU Extention program is meant to help gardeners with their plant and pest problems.

Most Read