Burrowing Owls Northwest of Tucson

By Dan Weisz

I hadn’t visited any of the Burrowing Owl sites northwest of Tucson for a while but I had heard about one large family there. One day after sunrise in July, I traveled there with a friend and was treated with wonderful views for the two hours we stood outside of our cars along a farm road.

The female adult Burrowing Owl spent most of her time out near the burrow and watching over the family.  Those long legs lets you know this bird can run and chase prey on the ground.  Burrowing Owls are active during the day unlike most other owls.  They are “crepuscular”, meaning they forage for food at dawn and dusk.  By visiting the site after sunrise, we had hoped to see the owls being active and were not disappointed.

One Burrowing Owl napped on a telephone line alongside where we parked the car.  This owl never budged, and he appears to be sleeping on one leg in this shot.  In the photo below, you can also see how much lighter this bird’s feathers are than the feathers of the owl in the photo above.  I believe that the owl on the line, with the lighter feathers, is the male adult.  Male Burrowing Owls spend more time outdoors than the females as they hunt for food when there are eggs or babies in the underground burrows.  Because of that, their feathers can be more bleached by the sun than the female’s feathers are.  Unlike other Owls, male and female Burrowing Owls are about the same size, so you can’t determine gender by size in this species.  The feathers’ colors may be the only clue to do so.

Perched near the father owl was one of the many young Burrowing Owls. See how its breast feathers are almost all white compared to the adult’s breast feathers above?

This little Owl was fairly active. It did quite a bit of grooming while on the wire.

And it also did quite a bit of flying.  The photos below are the first flight photos I have ever gotten of Burrowing Owls, so my morning was a personal success!  I was thrilled.  For a bird that is 7-9 inches long, it has a wide wingspan of almost two feet!

This flight shot shows a bit of the environment.  In the background is a corn field.  Burrowing Owls live in open, treeless areas and they are well suited to agricultural regions.  You can see a gray, concrete irrigation ditch next to the corn field.  Irrigation ditches provide a nice, strong surface as a ‘roof’ to the burrows.  Whether burrows are dug out initially by rodents, or by the owls themselves, the ditches provide shelter and, perhaps, additional cooling for the burrows.

My final flight shot shows this young Burrowing Owl coming in for a landing next to the corn field. It’s tail is spread wide to help to brake the bird in the air.  You can also see how the bird has turned its wings more vertical to help slow its flight.

Burrowing Owls commonly hunt all sorts of invertebrates (grasshoppers, moths, crickets, beetles,  etc.), along with small vertebrates (mice,voles, lizards and birds…).  Standing in the weeds and vegetation gives them a front row seat to their dining room.

Another juvenile Burrowing Owl spent quite a bit of time seeming to try to ‘cough’ up a pellet.  We watched this behavior for more than twenty minutes, but the bird was not successful as far as we could tell.  Now that it is swallowing small vertebrates whole, this bird needs to expel the undigestible portions of its prey.  As a young Owl, you can see its white breast feathers.  A few adult feathers have grown in, but this bird still has a long ways to go before looking like an adult.  Its tongue is an intriguing two-toned color- half pink and half gray.

The owl worked very hard to try to work this pellet up and out.

One of the young Burrowing Owls landed on a perch in front of the corn field.  While perched it changed positions frequently and at one point, it gave me an interesting ‘look’.  Because of the background, it reminded me of the movie “Children of the Corn”.  If you don’t know the reference, you can read about that movie here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_the_Corn_(1984_film) 

And with the look of that owl, we get ready for the nest email, featuring more predators!

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