FLORIDA BURROWING OWL (Speotyto cunicularia)

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Burrowing owl picture
Family: Strigidae

Order: Strigiformes

STATUS: Species of Special Concern

DESCRIPTION: A small, long-legged, brown owl with no "ear tufts" that lives in open, treeless areas. One of Florida's smallest owls, it averages 23 centimeters in height with a wingspan of 53 centimeters. Bright yellow eyes and a white chin accent the face. Dorsal surfaces variably brownish, the head and wings are streaked with white or buff. Below the chin the breast feathers are white with a subdistal brown bar. Ventral surfaces and thighs are buff to whitish. The tarsi and toes are gray, nails black. Females tend to be more heavily barred below and lighter than males. Young tend to a have lighter upper body than the adults, scarcely streaked and spotted except on wings and tail. Unusually long legs provide additional height for a better view from its typical ground-level perches. The burrowing owl spends most of its time on the ground, where its sandy brown plumage provides perfect camouflage from potential predators. They are easily approached and when agitated it bobs and bows.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: This owl occurs in high sandy ground with little growth, particularly dry prairies and pastures, and on man-made "prairies" (roadsides, airports, industrial areas, and large residential developments). Outside the breeding season, it is not as restricted in habitat preferences. The burrowing owl occurs in the Bahama Islands and in Florida from Orlando and Brooksville south through the keys, with scattered populations as far north as Jacksonville. There are few, if any, breeding grounds remaining that contains numerous pairs of owls.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Burrowing owls live as single breeding pairs or in colonies consisting of two or more families. During the day, these picturesque birds are usually seen standing erect at the mouth of the burrow or atop the mound of bare soil surrounding it or on a nearby post. Burrowing owls roost and nest underground. Burrows extend 1.2 to 2.4 meters underground. Nests are located at the end of the burrow and are lined with materials such as grass, hair, feathers, paper, plastic, and manure. The burrow microclimate seems to be important for food supply, thermoregulation, and social behavior of the owls. In Florida nesting begins as early as November and continues to April. The clutch consists of 4 to 8 eggs. Both parents participate in incubation, which last about 4 weeks. Young begin to fly when about 6 weeks old. Adults and flying young may move to other burrows, the family unit remaining together for some time. Eggs and young succumb to a variety of predators, including snakes, opossums, raccoons and skunks. If parents are unable to provide enough food for a large brood, the strongest of the young will sometimes cannibalize its weaker nest mates. In suburban areas, preferred nesting areas and nests may be lost or destroyed by construction activities, malicious destruction or harassment by people, and flooding of burrows during heavy rains. The owls forage in a variety of ways, their diet embracing a spectrum of insects, chiefly orthoptera and coleoptera. Other important foods are small lizards, frogs, snakes, and rodents.

BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: Historically, this species occupied the treeless grasslands and pastures of central and south Florida. The massive changes in the Florida landscape in the last 50 years have profoundly affected both numbers and distribution of the burrowing owl. The treeless prairies and pastures of Florida have been extensively destroyed. As a result of disappearing habitat, an increasing part of the remaining population of the burrowing owl in Florida is becoming dependent upon an impermanent artificial habitat. This can only be regarded as a precarious situation, because birds are plagued by dogs and cats, as well as by cattle and machines that collapse burrows. The Florida burrowing owl is currently classified as a "species of special concern" by the state. This means burrowing owls, their eggs and nesting burrows have been protected from harassment and/or disturbance by state law since 1979. Burrowing owls are also protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

HABITAT GUIDELINES: The Florida burrowing owl nests in dry prairies, pastures, vacant lots, or any other open, dry upland areas with burrowable soils. The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission has adopted guidelines to protect burrowing owl nests (Revised April 23, 1991). These guidelines recognize that construction activity within 10 feet of the burrow runs the risk of collapsing a burrow. Construction activity within 50 feet runs the risk of causing disturbances and perhaps nest abandonment. Therefore, if a nest occurs on-site, the applicant should provide a minimum buffer zone of 50 feet around the burrow and stake-off the area around the burrow. Sod may be laid within the protected area outside the "active" nesting period (February 15 through July 10), but the burrow nest must be left open and the burrow intact. The vegetation within this buffer must be maintained at a height of 6 inches or less so that the owl has an unobstructed view.

RECOMMENDATIONS: An inventory of the breeding population in Florida needs to be made. Natural areas large enough to serve as refuges for the burrowing owl should be set aside and maintained or managed for this species.

Of all the birds found in Florida, this species by virtue of its unusual habits, is unique. It responds readily to protection and its requirements are easily satisfied. To fail to assure the species a future in Florida's landscape would be unfortunate indeed.

Owre, O.T. 1978. Florida burrowing owl. Pp. 97-99. In H.W. Kale, II, (ed.), Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida. Birds. University Presses of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. 1991. Burrowing owl nest protection guidelines and procedures. October 7, 1991 Revision. Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. Tallahassee, FL. 1pp.

Content updated Date July 20, 2004