Seeing a burrowing owl is always a treat. A person does not have to walk through City Park after dark to find this diminutive owl, long-legged but only 8-10” tall. People may have been near one, thinking this owl’s call was a dove or a quail. The owl in this photo was perched in full daylight, on a sign overlooking passing cars on Mountain City Highway.
It may have had a nest nearby. Burrowing owls live across the West, in treeless, open areas having short grass or bare ground. They usually select a burrow already dug and abandoned.
The Great Basin offers an abundance of abandoned holes dug by prairie dogs, badgers, kangaroo rats, kit foxes and even desert tortoises. They can even use a culvert or PVC pipe.
If the owls cannot find abandoned burrows, they have been known to evict the occupants of an occupied burrow. They collect animal dung and spread it around their burrow to attract insects. They also may collect shiny objects to decorate their burrow edge.
However, seeing a burrowing owl perched on a sign is not the typical sighting. People usually spot these owls standing on the raised dirt around their nesting burrow.
Young owls will also sun themselves at the burrow entrance, sometimes showing only the top of their head and eyes. If a person approaches them, they scurry underground. If the person peers into the hole, they may hear the buzz of a rattlesnake. Burrowing owls do not share burrows with snakes and the sound comes from the owls themselves.
Great horned owls perch in tall trees where they swoop down on unsuspecting ground squirrels or jackrabbits under the cover of darkness. Burrowing owls perch on fence posts or sagebrush and swoop down on ground insects, lizards or mice, hunting in both daylight and darkness. They may hover over a field, chase insects along the ground, and even fly up to seize flying insects like a flycatcher.
Burrowing owls are considered endangered or threatened in some areas. Their main threats are habitat loss, car strikes and a decline in prairie dogs and ground squirrels. They tolerate living near humans, nesting in empty lots, airports and on golf courses. Watch around the Elko area and you may spot a burrowing owl.