Burrowing Owls

Even as El Paso has grown up around them, burrowing owls persist in the urban environment, and may be seen on the Memorial grounds. If you spot them, please enjoy watching from a distance and avoid approaching the owls or their burrows. We monitor and protect owls within the Memorial with assistance from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Find out more about burrowing owls and what you can do to help them survive in urban areas.

 
An adult owl crouches in front of three fluffy juveniles standing in a rocky area. All are looking at the camera.

A Unique Species

The western burrowing owl, Athene cunicularia hypugea is like no other North American owl. Unlike typical owls that are nocturnal (night-dwelling) and live in trees, this small migratory bird is ground-dwelling and found during the daytime!

Description

Burrowing owls are ~9 inches tall with a 20-24 in. wingspan. Females are smaller and darker than males, and their feathers are a sandy brown color, and the breast area is beige with spotted bars. Its long legs, short tail, white eyebrows, brilliant yellow eyes, and lack of ear tufts, are distinctive. Juvenile owls lack spotted chest bars.

 
Closeup of head and chest of brown owl with white flecks

What do they sound like?

Burrowing owls make a variety of calls. The male gives mating and territorial calls, described as “coocoo.” Other calls include distress and warning calls (“chucks” and “chatter”). The “rattle-snake” call is unique. It imitates a rattlesnake so accurately that predators won’t enter their burrows when they hear that call.

Where do they live?

These owls are found in open habitats with low-growing vegetation, such as grasslands, prairies, and deserts. The owls reside in holes started by burrowing mammals like prairie dog s and ground squirrels. The owls improve their burrows by digging and scratching backwards with their feet and talons (claws).

 
small brown and white speckled owl standing, legs visible, facing camera

Why do I only see one?

Although burrowing owls may live socially in loose colonies in the wild, pairs are more commonly found in urban areas. During the breeding season (March – August), the male stands guard near the entrance of the burrow and provides the female food during egg-laying and incubation.

Why should we care?

These owls are valuable to humans and the ecosystem. They are fierce predators of rodents (mice and gophers), snakes, and insects (beetles, earwigs, and grasshoppers). They consume agricultural pests and help prevent the spread of diseases that rodents carry in urban areas.

 

Why are burrowing owls living in urban and suburban areas?

The owls are losing their natural habitat due to urbanization, loss of habitat, and the widespread control of burrowing mammals. Development should consider the owls to avoid destroying and fragmenting open spaces where they live. When natural burrows are limited, the owls often breed in unsafe urban habitats which may lead to problems for them or their young. Burrowing owls are tolerant of humans and adapt to areas where burrows are found even if in dangerous places close to busy streets or parks. The owls are known to live and nest in drainage pipes, parking lots, school yards, golf courses, openings under concrete pilings or asphalt, and at airports. Fortunately, the owls will also use artificial nesting structures built especially for them.

Conservation of the Burrowing Owl

Burrowing owls are endangered in Canada, Threatened in Mexico, and a Species of Greatest Conservation Concern in many of the United States. They are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Preservation of our natural desert open spaces will ensure a future for this valuable and unique species for future generations.

 
shoulder and head of brown and white speckled owl looking over left shoulder toward camera

How YOU Can Help Burrowing Owls

  1. Always observe owls from a respectful distance.
  2. Conduct activities away from the owls during the breeding season (March to August). Protect nesting areas during egg-laying, incubation, and rearing of the young.
  3. Encourage parks, schools, developers, construction managers and businesses to provide protective barriers around the nest site and to mitigate for destroyed owl habitat.
  4. Disturbance of an active nest burrow may destroy eggs, young owls, or even adults and is violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
  5. Do not spray pesticides near owl nests.
  6. Keep dogs on leashes and cats indoors; they may kill owls and chicks.
  7. Support land use standards, natural open space planning, habitat stewardship, and habitat enhancement projects that benefit burrowing owls.
  8. Provide artificial nest burrows whenever possible.
  9. Provide posts or poles taller than four feet in or near burrowing owl habitat for hunting, perching and predator detection.
  10. Report any birds found nesting or near construction sites to your local USFWS agent or Texas Parks and Wildlife Biologist.

Last updated: May 15, 2021

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