Large owls of the southwest

Western Screech Owl (Otus kennicotti) 8.5 inches long
Western screech owl USFWS photo by Gary M. StolzThe western screech owl is gray in color overall with blackish streaks and bars. Its eyes are yellow. This well-camouflaged little owl is oftener heard than seen. Its call is a series of short, accelerating whistles. A nocturnal hunter, it preys principally on small rodents, small birds and insects, which it catches by swooping down from a lofty perch. It is a fairly common year-round resident in most of Arizona and New Mexico, particularly favoring open woodlands, riparian groves, suburbs and parks. USFWS photo by Gary M. Stolz

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) 8 inches long
This unusual ground-dwelling owl favors open country--grassland, prairie, farmland and airfields. 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, 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 by Bob Hines, USFWSField marks to look for include long legs, 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. Birds may be year-round residents or may migrate south to Mexico during cold seasons. Drawing of the burrowing owl is by Bob Hines, USFWS.

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.

Barlowe, Dot. The Sonoran Desert by Day and Night: A Dover Coloring Book. New York: Dover Publications Pictorial Archive Series, 2002.

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