Burrowing Owls

provided by Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife

Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia floridana) are the only small owl species who perch on the ground. Although Burrowing Owls can fly, they often run or flatten themselves against the ground when disturbed. Burrowing Owls, as the name suggests, make their homes underneath the ground. Their burrows can be several yards long and is usually less than 3 feet deep; size depends on the original animal who created it. Rather than excavating themselves, Burrowing Owls will take up residency in abandoned burrows made by species such as prairie dogs, ground squirrels, badgers, marmots, skunks, armadillos, kangaroo rats, and tortoises. Owls in Cape Coral will even take advantage of rain gutter drains as shelter.

Because of their dependence on these other mammals’ homes, some areas have been experiencing a decline in population numbers of Burrowing Owls because of the decline of prairie dogs and ground squirrels. Burrowing Owl diets mainly consist of insects and invertebrates, they may occasionally feed upon small mammals.

In Florida, Burrowing Owls are considered a state-designated threatened species. This means, per Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, it is prohibited to take, possess, or sell Burrowing Owls, their nests (i.e., burrows), or eggs without an appropriate permit. Burrowing Owls, their eggs, and their young are also protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Threats to Burrowing Owls include loss of habitat, domestic animal (dog and cat) attacks, floods and storms that can destroy burrows, and vehicle strikes.

On April 29, a juvenile Burrowing Owl (#22-1971) was admitted to CROW after being found in the middle of the street. The patient was experiencing hind limb paresis, inappropriate mental activity, weakness in their limbs, and a hemorrhage of the left eye. The patient was given appropriate medications and closely monitored. After a few days in the hospital, the owl started to stand again! The patient was eventually moved to the outside Burrowing Owl rehabilitation enclosure for flight conditioning and was cleared for release back to Cape Coral on May 13.

The typical breeding season for the Florida population of Burrowing Owls is mid-February to early July, though they can breed earlier or later. Burrows are often maintained and used again the following year. Female Burrowing Owls can lay up to eight eggs in a one-week period and will incubate them for around 28 days. Once the babies are born, it takes two weeks before they appear out of the burrow; young will begin learning how to fly at four weeks old and will become proficient at six weeks. Juveniles stay with their parents for the first 12 weeks of their lives. Oftentimes, Burrowing Owls will ‘decorate’ their burrows before their owlets arrive; in some other populations, these owls will collect animal dung to attract insects to their burrows, providing food. In Florida, Burrowing Owls will often use trash and litter to decorate.

Burrowing Owls in Florida prefer open prairies with little vegetation. This can include golf courses, airports, pastures, vacant lots, and agricultural fields. Unlike most other owl species, Burrowing Owls are considered crepuscular, meaning they are the most active during dawn and dusk. In general, they tend to be active more during the day during breeding season, and more active at night during the non-breeding season. Except for the population in Florida, Burrowing Owls will migrate South during the winter. Their habitat range expands from the southern portions of the western Canadian provinces through Southern Mexico and western Central America, as well as Florida and the Caribbean islands.

Cape Coral in Southwest Florida has the largest population of the Florida species of the Burrowing Owl in the state, with an estimated 1,000 nesting pairs. CROW receives its Burrowing Owl patients from Cape Coral and the patients are also released back in Cape Coral, near their original location. In Cape Coral, Burrowing Owl burrows are protected along with their burrows; burrows are marked off with four white PVC pipes, and a wooden cross staked into the ground at the entrance of each burrow. When viewing or photographing Burrowing Owls, individuals are advised to keep a minimum distance of 33 feet to not disturb them.

THIS WEEK AT CROW (5/31-6/6):
There were 32 new patients admitted to CROW this week, including a Blu Jay, 2 Burrowing Owls, a Cattle Egret, 4 Common Grackles, 4 Cooper’s Hawks, a Double-crested Cormorant, a Downy Woodpecker, 2 Eastern Cottontails, 2 Eastern Screech Owls, a Fish Crow, a Loggerhead Shrike, a Mottled Duck, a Morning Dove, 4 Northern Mockingbirds, 2 Northern Raccoons, 2 Ospreys, a Pileated Woodpecker, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Recent releases include a Florida Box Turtle and a Fancy Pigeon. Check out a full list of CROW’s current patients and recent releases.

Wildlife doesn’t have health insurance! Your donations help cover the costs of medical and rehabilitative care for over 5,000 patients admitted to CROW’s Wildlife Hospital each year.

Want to learn more about wildlife rehabilitation? Stop by CROW’s Visitor Education Center at 3883 Sanibel Captiva Road.

About Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW)
Established in 1968, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) is a teaching hospital saving the sick, injured and orphaned native and migratory wildlife of Southwest Florida and beyond.  Through state-of-the-art veterinary care, public education programs and an engaging visitor center, CROW works to improve the health of the environment, humans and our animals through wildlife medicine. For more information, or to plan your visit, go to www.crowclinic.org. If you find an animal that is in need of help, call (239) 472-3644 ext. #222.

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