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Burrowing Owl

April 19, 2021
Nicole Doll
Burrowing owl
  • Scientific NameAthene cunicularia 
  • SARA Status: Endangered
  • COSEWIC Status: Endangered  
  • COSEWIC Range: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba  

Burrowing owls are long-legged, round, little owls that hunt during the day and night, and hide-out in underground burrows when they’re not searching for prey. Their ability to live in underground burrows sets them apart from all other species of owls.  

Photo by Santosh Shanmuga courtesy of the Cornell Lab

Burrowing owls prefer open areas with low, sparse vegetation. They rely closely on other grassland species such as the American badger, Richardson’s ground squirrel, Black-tailed Prairie dog, coyotes, and foxes to create holes in the ground in which they can nest. Since many of these species are declining themselves, or are being trapped/poisoned when on agricultural land, the burrowing owl is less likely to find suitable habitat.  

Spending most of their time hunting, these owls eat mostly insects, but will also feed on snakes, frogs, and small rodents. They are migratory birds and spend their springs and summers in the prairies, and then head all the way to the southern United States and Mexico in the winter.  

Unfortunately, the burrowing owl has experienced significant declines across much of its North American range. With a 90% reduction in Canadian populations between 1990 and 2000, and a further 64% between 2005 and 2015, there is estimated to be less than 1,000 pairs left in Saskatchewan and Alberta.  

Threats: Burrowing owls have been steadily declining since the 1930s as a result of mass grassland conversion to agriculture. Their numbers have been dwindling ever since, as grasslands continue to be diminished and degraded.

Other threats that they face are the reduction of their prey species, as well as other grassland species which they rely on for habitat. Grasshoppers, which are one of their main food sources, are the targets of insecticides that are sprayed on farmers’ crops. Burrowing owls often ingest these poisoned grasshoppers and start to accumulate the poison themselves.

The accumulation of such toxins has been shown to reduce the ability of owls to produce young. They may be further exposed to toxins if they eat carrion, such as coyote and squirrel carcasses that are often killed with poison.  

What’s being done: Burrowing owls are protected both federally, under Species at Risk Act (SARA), and provincially in all provinces where they occur. Furthermore, programs with landowners have been implemented to encourage the protection of habitat and nesting sites. This has been met with strong support from landowners across provinces, who have also contributed to the ongoing monitoring and research of the species.  

There have also been a number of reintroduction programs attempted in British Columbia that have been met with some success. Extensive research in both summer and winter habitats continues to be undertaken in hopes to understand more about the species and how to successfully bring populations back up.