South Dakota
Birds and Birding
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Burrowing Owl

Athene cunicularia

Length: 10 inches Wingspan: 22 inches Seasonality: Summer
ID Keys: Habitat and behavior.  Physical characteristics include long legs, short tail, brown upperparts with light spotting, and light underparts with brown barring.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cuniculariaThe burrowing owl prefers to summer in prairie dog colonies, using the burrows as nesting locations.  Farmers and ranchers often dislike prairie dog colonies, fearing the honeycombs of holes and burrows pose a threat to livestock grazing in the area.  Prairie dog extermination efforts have had a major impact on Burrowing Owl populations.  Note the photo on the right depicts a young first summer bird.  Additional photos, including adult birds, can be found through the links on the bottom of the page.

Habitat: Grassland and rangeland, farmland, open urban grassy areas such as airports, golf courses, and empty lots.

Diet: Mostly large insects and small mammals.  Occasionally will eat small birds, amphibians, and reptiles.

Behavior: May hunt by hovering over fields, swooping down from a perch, or even running along the ground.  They will also fly out from perches to grab insects from mid-air.  Most of the hunting is done near sundown and at night, but they will also actively feed during the day during the summer breeding season.

Nesting: May through July

Breeding Map: Breeding Bird Survey Map

Song: Haunting cooo-hoooooo.

Migration: South Dakota populations migrate south in the fall, moving as far as Mexico and Central America.  Populations in the southern U.S. are probably permanent residents.

Birdhouses:  In an attempt to bolster populations, artificial burrows have been placed in some locations.  Burrowing Owls will use these man-made burrows.

Conservation Status: Populations have been in decline.  Burrowing Owls are usually associated with colonies of prairie dogs or ground squirrels.  Prairie dog control practiced by many ranchers thus has the effect of lowering burrowing owl populations.

Further Information: 1) USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter, Burrowing Owl

2) Cornell University's "All About Birds - Burrowing Owl"

3) Burrowing Owl

Photo Information: July 17th, 2004 -- On County Line Road about 25 miles east of Highway 83 -- Terry Sohl

Additional Photos: Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Burrowing Owl photos.


Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Burrowing Owl - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Uncommon to common in the western part of the state in summer.  Uncommon to casual elsewhere.