Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Burrowing Owls: Clowns of the Desert

"Well, hello there!" Burrowing Owl in Bernalillo, New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The first time I saw a Burrowing Owl, also known as a Prairie Owl, was in Wellington, Colorado. We once owned 35 acres of rolling hills and prairie land and we didn't have prairie dogs, but our neighbors across the road had plenty. I love prairie dogs and used to stop and watch them on my way home from yoga classes that I took with my granddaughter. She also loves prairie dogs so I would watch them at night and share my stories with her the next day. 

One night, as I stared off into the field, I noticed two heads sticking out of a hole that did not look like prairie dogs. They were clearly watching me, even though I wasn't close. They resembled prairie dogs from the top, but they seemed much more shy. Well, they are shy, but they also share burrows with prairie dogs. Yes, I was looking at a Burrowing Owl! They are wonderful to watch as they perch on one leg, cock their heads to one side, or turn their heads around backwards. They are the clowns of the desert! 

Burrowing Owls love the desert, which is where I've seen them the most, in the deserts of New Mexico. You may recognize them as the Mariachi Band from Rango.

Rango publicity trailer screenshot of the Mariachi Owl Band.

Meet the Owls...

Burrowing Owls are smaller than most owls, averaging 11 inches tall, though females are always shorter than males. They have long legs, though for some reason they prefer to use only one, tucking the other up near their fanny. They also have short tails. Perhaps they leave that second leg hanging out to make their tails look longer. I don't know. As far as raptors go, when compared to the Turkey Vulture, those poor little owls are probably a bit embarrassed about the length of their wings and tails!

Whoops! That's not an owl! Uh, yeah, those Turkey Vultures tend to enjoy showing off when it comes to their wings. This one was photographed in Llano, Texas. He claimed he was drying the food particles on his wings so they would fall off, but when interviewed by this reporter, the other raptors hanging out nearby said this fella is a bird with  Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Okay, much better. This IS a Burrowing Owl, photographed on the mesa outside Rio Rancho, New Mexico. He tried to strike a pose for the photograph. I think he did a good job here. You can see the spotted wings; long legs for a vulture--water or swamp birds tend to have long legs like these; the bright eyes that are so well loved on these beautiful creatures; and the short tail. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The Burrowing Owl has eyes that seem to shine. They are very attractive. Their beaks are yellow or gray. They do not have protruding ears, but they do have the characteristic flat face of an owl. They have a patch of white on their chin, and they like to bob those chins up and down when they're upset. They aren't easily agitated, though, unless you threaten their young, so stay away from those babies! 

Yes, this is the coyote as she trotted out of the arroyo. I believe it is female, but I have no evidence for this except that she reminded me of a female! Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Ahh, babies! I was driving down I-25 once past Bernalillo, New Mexico and noticed a coyote racing back and forth in an arroyo to the east. I stopped to take his picture (of course) and noticed a Parliament of Burrowing Owls. (Yes, I do believe that is the proper term. They actually have an organized owl government.) The babies immediately scattered. They had holes in the side of the arroyo, which I believe is what was frustrating the coyote--the walls of this particular arroyo were very steep and nothing could get at those holes except the birds! Imagine how frustrating that would be to see breakfast, lunch, and dinner six feet away and not be able to reach it! Grr...

Female giving me a backward glance. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

The adults remained on the fence, which apparently is a favorite perch. I picked up a book at a used bookstore in Colorado once called Prairie Owl by Rob Palmer. Palmer spent three years following a family of Burrowing Owls (the terms are used interchangeably, unless of course you are a scientist) and photographing their playful antics, such as their habit of looking at humans, animals and object with their head cocked to the side when they are confused. Palmer also pointed out that Burrowing Owls seem to prefer perching on wire fences, though he did not know why. I've noticed the same habit, and I don't know, either. 

This seven foot Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake visited our backyard in Texas early one evening while I was filling the food dishes for the squirrels. In fact, he was right beneath my foot when I sensed his presence, but not in a position to strike. He had also just finished eating, judging from the bulge in his belly, and they move a bit slower after a meal. This old fella was around for a long time judging from the length of his rattle! 

Speaking of habitat, the Burrowing Owl shares its holes with Prairie Dogs, but sometimes takes over holes left behind by large snakes, like the rattlesnake above--a seven-footer who stopped by to say "Howdy" one night when I was filling the squirrel dishes with seed at our home in Texas.

Unfortunately, rattlesnake roundups are legal, and obscenely cruel. First they chase the snakes from their holes, generally by pouring gasoline down the hole. This poisons the hole and all of the land around it, and even seeps down into the water table--enjoy a nice glass of gasoline with your dinner! They then sew the mouths shut on the rattlesnakes, whip them around above their heads in a "show," pass them around to be handled, which is even more cruel as rattlesnakes are exceptionally shy creatures, and end the show by tossing the snakes into a trash can and burning them alive. Sick, but true. In their attempts to chase the snakes from their holes, they also destroy habitats for Prairie Dogs, Burrowing Owls, and other creatures, and all the plants, insects, and animals around the hole. 

This is a couple, I believe, the parents of the babies I saw fluttering into holes when I came driving down the road. Females lay eggs every one or two days until they have a "clutch" that can contain as many as twelve! And you thought you had it rough keeping track of your toddler! The male is the lighter-colored owl on the right and the female is the dark colored owl who is watching me. I did not get close enough to disturb them. I don't believe it's necessary to frighten wild animals for photographs--that's why we spend so much money on distance lenses! This photo was taken near Bernalillo, New Mexico by Darla Sue Dollman. 

Burrowing Owls are an endangered species in Canada; threatened in Mexico; and of "special concern" in the Western United States. Overall, however, they seem to be thriving, and are therefore listed as "Least Concern" on the IUCN Red List. I personally believe they are dwindling in numbers in the West because so many animals are dwindling in numbers due to habitat destruction. This comes in many forms, including ranchers disturbing the ecosystem by insisting the Bureau of Land Management round up wild horses so they can purchase more cattle and graze them on government land for free; and rattlesnake roundups. The West is slowly dying, and it's up to us to bring it back to life by protecting these blessed little creatures.

  • Palmer, Rob. Prairie Owl. Falcon Photos.Com. Colorado: 2006.


Ros said...

Fascinating! I never heard of Burrowing Owls before. Thank you for such interesting information!

Ros at GenWestUK

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Oh Ros, I do hope you have the chance to see one sometime! They are delightful creatures! SO much fun, especially when they tilt their heads to the side and make you feel all silly and giggly. Just wonderful!

Joyce Lansky said...

I love the dressed up owls.

Darla Sue Dollman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darla Sue Dollman said...

From Rango! Yes, they are so funny. They remind me of the mice in Babe. They're not very big owls. They're about the size of a robin, so I could picture them in the movie, a troupe of tiny owls singing in the desert! Lol!