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Western Burrowing Owl

by Janet Alexander

The Western Burrowing Owl is one of the smallest species of owls, about nine inches in length, with a short tail and very long legs, weighing only about four ounces.

Unlike many forest-dwelling owls, burrowing owls are found in open, dry grasslands and inhabit the abandoned underground burrows of other animals, such as the ground squirrel. They can dig up their own burrows, but usually prefer the deserted excavations of other animals. The owls commonly perch on fence posts or on top of mounds outside their burrows. Burrowing owls seem to tolerate non-threatening human activity more than other owl species and can often be found at the margins of airports and golf courses and in vacant urban lots.

While most owls are nocturnal, burrowing owls are unique in that they are diurnal, meaning they are active both day and night, with most activity occurring at dusk and dawn. They are opportunistic feeders, mostly eating beetles, grasshoppers and other large arthropods. Other prey animals include mice, rats, gophers, reptiles and amphibians. The burrowing owl hovers while hunting, similar to the American Kestrel and is almost silent when in flight.

The burrowing owl is listed as a “species of special concern” in the state of California as well as federally. Sadly, the species has been on the decline in the Bay Area for many years, as most of its habitat has been destroyed and replaced by urban development. As a preservation effort in recent years, some local municipalities have begun to request that developers leave portions of their land for owl habitat. We must all do what we can to help save the last of these precious creatures before they become endangered.

In Silicon Valley
Burrowing Owls make their home on Mission College grounds in Santa Clara, one of the few remaining San Francisco Bay Area preserves dwindling to encroaching development. In 2001, less than 20 burrowing owls were tallied on the grounds that once numbered around 60 in 1988.

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