Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) 8 inches long

Burrowing Owl

This unusual ground-dwelling owl favors open country--grassland, prairie, farmland and airfields. Cowboys called it the "howdy bird" on account of its habit of giving a little bowing curtsey as if it were saying "howdy!" It is often active during the day, though it does most of its hunting at dusk and during the night. In summer it eats mostly large insects such as grasshoppers and crickets as well as scorpions, centipedes and other arthropods. During the winter, when these insects are scarce, it switches to small mammals such as voles, mice and ground squirrels.

Burrowing Owl drawing

Field marks to look for include long legs, white "eyebrows," yellow eyes and bill, brown upperparts with white spots on the back and wings. The chest is dark with white spots, white belly with brown barring. No other owl is so long-legged, and no other owl is found in the same habitat. They make their home in a burrow, often one formerly used by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats or other animals. Their burrows may be as long as 6-10 feet, and the nest is within the burrow where the female stays with the young while the male brings them food. The young leave the nest at about 6 weeks of age. These birds may be year-round residents in southeast Arizona or may migrate south to Mexico during cold seasons.

Burrowing Owl

If you would like to see Burrowing Owls, a good place to look is in Tucson at the Kino Ecosystem Restoration Project (KERP) near the lighted Kino Sports Complex at Ajo and Country Club Road in Tucson. This 141-acre site is just off the freeway, and you can park in the sports complex parking lot and walk the slightly-over-2-mile perimeter trail. There are riparian areas, mesquite bosques, creosote and grassland in this restored native habitat for urban wildlife. Displaced Burrowing Owls from the area are released at the KERP which provides numerous Burrowing Owl nesting tunnels. You may also see desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbit, Red-tailed Hawk, and Gambel's Quail. The Tucson Audubon Society leads monthly bird walks here on the fourth Saturday of each month. For information and a map of the trail go here.


Alderfer, Jonathan (ed.). Field Guide to Birds: Arizona and New Mexico. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006. This handy, pocket-size (4x6) guide includes most of the birds you're likely to see in Arizona. In addition to a photo, it includes information about behavior, habitat and specific local sites where you are likely to find the bird.

Cameron, Angus. The Nightwatchers. New York: Four Winds Press, 1971. Unfortunately this book seems to be out of print. It contains charming write-ups of the author's personal experiences with owls and wonderful drawings by Peter Parnall of the birds in their natural settings. It is worth looking for if you can find it in your library or a used book store.

Corman, Troy E. and Cathryn Wise-Gervais (eds.) Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

Johnsgard, Paul A. North American Owls: Biology and Natural History (Second Edition). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.