Winter Wildlife: Burrowing Owls

What lives underground and hisses to fend off predators? If you were thinking of a snake, then the burrowing owl succeeded in its goal (and our picture above must not have loaded...)! Sharing semi-arid climates with squirrels, rattlesnakes, and more has led this unique bird to develop some interesting adaptations, including that particular defense mechanism. Life on ground-level is no easy endeavor for these little ones, though they seem to make it look that way.

Burrowing owl in flight (Rowan O'Brien)

Though these birds are roughly 9-inches tall, they have a wingspan of 20-25 inches! These dynamic little creatures have a migratory range that spans across much of the continent, and winter approaching means it’s about time to take a load-off. Burrowing owls are one of the many species of birds that “overwinters” - essentially hanging tight and getting cozy until the cold passes. Even better, there is a migratory population that does so at Open Space Authority preserves.

Group of burrowing owls (Ken Corregan)

Although they can fly – they also spend time a good amount of time on the ground. Burrowing owls are as resourceful as they are cute - (and if you couldn’t tell from the photo, they are really cute) - as their homes are created by other animals that they use to roost and nest in.

Fun fact: like other burrow-dwelling animals, they have a higher tolerance for carbon dioxide than birds that live above ground.

burrowing owl - eileen johnson photography
Burrowing owl (eileen johnson)

Ground squirrels, also abundant in the South Bay, are big contributors to burrowing owl shelter, whether they know it or not. Once a squirrel leaves a burrow, an owl can swoop in – pun intended – and set up camp. The mission isn’t over, however, as they need to keep a watchful eye for predators like snakes and squirrels who prey on their eggs.

While ideal habitat for resident burrowing owls is valley floor and bay lands, the best habitat for migratory populations includes short-statured grasslands and hillsides, which make the open spaces in Santa Clara County the perfect fit for them. The short grasses that extend across much of our local landscapes help the burrowing owl spot predators and give them space to hop or run to catch their prey. Their diet, much of which consists of insects and small rodents, serves a larger purpose in the ecosystem, as they naturally control pest population levels. And the owls themselves are also great sources of food for larger animals like raptors and foxes - but we’re not going to think about that!

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Burrowing owl (Derek Neumann)

And while the South Bay is abundant with viable habitat for these charismatic critters, population counts are plummeting. Listed as a California species of special concern, burrowing owls (like many other local animal populations) are in danger due to rapid development of critical landscapes. This puts further emphasis on the urgent need to protect open spaces like those in the Santa Clara Valley.

Although these critters are cute, we thank you for appreciating them from a respectful distance. Harassment from passersby and people trying to get a look up close is also contributing to their decline, as they waste precious energy trying to get away.

Together we can help these amazing creatures by being aware of their needs, and protecting and enhancing their habitats to help populations grow for future generations to enjoy.

Burrowing owl in flight (Derek Neumann)

December 01, 2021
For media inquiries contact:

Charlotte Graham

Public Information Officer