How to Help Burrowing Owls

Question: I am interested in providing habitat for the burrowing owls in my neighborhood. Could you provide me with some information about them?

 

Answer: There are several year-round species of owls in Florida. These include the barn, barred, burrowing, eastern-screech, and great horned owl. Most of these owls are found statewide, with the exception of the burrowing owl that is found only in central and south Florida. The burrowing owl is found mostly on open grasslands, pastures, farms, and airstrips. These owls have adapted to life among people. Proper management and education provide the means for people to adapt to life among the owls.

Burrowing owls are small birds that live in treeless areas. These birds have a brown plumage that camouflages it with the ground. This owl is one of Floridaís smallest, averaging nine inches in height with a wingspan of 21 inches. The burrowing owl lacks ear tufts, has bright yellow eyes and a white chin. The birdís long legs provide additional height for a better view from its typical ground level perch. Burrows are 4 to 8 feet underground, with grass lined nests located at the end of the burrow.

Burrowing owls live as single breeding pairs or in loose colonies consisting of two or more families. These owls are active both during the day and night and are most often seen standing near the mouth of their burrow. Burrowing owls eat insects (mostly grasshoppers and beetles, but also roaches and crickets) and are therefore beneficial in urban settings. Other foodstuff includes small lizards, frogs, snakes, and rodents.

Six to eight eggs are laid and are just over an inch in length. Eggs can be laid from October to May, but most nests begin in March. The female incubates the eggs for about 4 weeks. Young birds emerge when they are 10 days old, and begin to fly at 42 days old. The young stay with their parents until they can survive on their own. The eggs and the young have predators including snakes, opossums, raccoons, skunks, and cats and dogs. If there is not enough food for all of the young, the strongest will sometimes cannibalize weaker nest mates. Many nesting areas are lost or destroyed by construction, malicious destruction, and harassment by people, or flooding from heavy rains. This animal is listed as a "species of special concern" which means state law protects them. These owls are also protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

There are four simple things you can do to protect or attract these birds to your home. First, if you have a burrow or create a burrow, use T-perches near the burrows. This will allow the bird an elevated view of the nest area and make burrows more visible when mowing or working in the area. Second, restrict the use of pesticides that can contaminate food sources or restrict food supply. Third, to supply habitat, remove 1 to 2 cubic feet of sod exposing sandy soil. You may want to start the burrow and erect a T-perch to attract the owls to the site. Finally, report any destruction or harassment of these birds to the nearest Wildlife Alert (Lakeland, 1-800-282-8002 or West Palm Beach, 1-800-342-9620).

 

Shannon L. Ruby is the Natural Resources/Agriculture Agent with the University of Florida/IFAS and Lee County Extension Service. To submit questions, call 461-7515 between 9am and 4pm or send questions to 3406 Palm Beach Blvd. Fort Myers, FL 33916-3736 or via e-mail at rubys@leegov.com.