Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia – Status: Endangered; Special Protection


  • Ecological — Key indicator of intact grassland systems
  • Pest control — Primary diet of insects (grasshoppers) and small mammals (mice, voles).
  • Economic — A favorite of tourists and photographers.
  • Aesthetic/cultural — Important to many native and First Nations groups.

Figure 1. Burrowing Owl distribution from USGS Breeding Bird Survey data 2007-2011 (Sauer et al. 2012).

Conservation needs:

Burrowing Owls are endemic to short- and mixed-grass prairie. They require the presence burrows (generally created by other mammals, such as prairie dogs) for shelter and raising young. Other than livestock grazing, human activities generally negatively impact Burrowing Owls. Poisoning and removal of prairie dogs reduces habitat and nest-site quality, as well as fidelity to breeding sites. USGS Breeding Bird Survey data (1966-2011) indicate that Burrowing Owl populations are declining, particularly in the northern portion of the NPCN region (below, by Sauer et al. 2012).

The following are needs identified by Dechant et al. (2003):

  • Maintain large, contiguous areas of native grassland including prairie dog colonies and areas of treeless plains.
  • Enlist governments and conservation groups to obtain easements in prime owl habitat.
  • Offer financial incentives to landowners who maintain prairie dog colonies or avoid agricultural activities that negatively affect the Burrowing Owl (e.g., tilling soil at nests, spraying pesticides or herbicides on territories June-Aug.).
  • Agencies should shift from subsidizing prairie dog reduction to finding workable alternatives that maintain viable prairie dog communities or Richardson’s ground squirrels and ranching. Prairie dog or Richardson’s ground squirrel eradication may be economically costly, agriculturally unnecessary, and ecologically detrimental).
  • Increase the area of prairie dog colonies, possibly by reintroducing prairie dogs where they have been eliminated, or by releasing additional prairie dogs into active colonies to promote colony expansion. Colonies ≥35 ha in area appeared to provide adequate space for nesting Burrowing Owls in Nebraska.
  • Enlist landowners’ in protecting burrows. Operation Burrowing Owl (a private stewardship program in Canada) has been extremely successful at cooperation in conservation efforts, and has provided valuable population trend data for Canadian owls.
  • Preserve traditional nesting sites. Burrowing Owls often reuse nesting sites occupied in previous years.
  • Encourage the reduction of pesticide use, and to use pesticides of low toxicity to nontarget species. Do not use pesticides within 400-600m of owl nest burrows.
  • Preserve, restore, or enhance prey habitats such as road rights-of-way, hayland, and uncultivated areas of dense, tall vegetation within a 1-km radius of nesting areas. Plant permanent vegetation strips in heavily cultivated regions to increase habitat for rodent prey.

Relationship to livestock grazing:

  • Burrowing Owls prefer short grass, though adequate amounts for prey species required. Implement rotational grazing in heavily grazed areas to increase prey populations.
  • Grazing is beneficial and must be continued for Burrowing Owls to thrive
  • In Saskatchewan, majority of nests (84%) were situated in livestock pastures despite the rarity of this habitat (7% of the study area).

Area requirements:

  • Foraging-area requirements are considerably larger than nesting-area requirements.
  • Foraging requirements: Saskatchewan: 14 – 481 ha (mean of 241 ha).
  • Nesting requirements: Minnesota: 4.8-6.4 ha; North Dakota: 4-6 ha; Wyoming: 3.5 ha.
  • The size of prairie dog colonies in western Nebraska was positively correlated with fledging success rates.


Dechant, J. A., M. L. Sondreal, D. H. Johnson, L. D. Igl, C. M. Goldade, P. A. Rabie, and B. R. Euliss. 2003. Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Burrowing Owl. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1148&context=usgsnpwrc (Version 12AUG2004).

Desmond, M.J., J.A. Savidge, and K.M. Eskridge. 2000. Correlations between burrowing owl and black-tailed prairie dog declines: A 7-year analysis. Journal of Wildlife Management 64(4): 1067-1075.

Holroyd, G. L., H. E. Trefry, and J. M. Duxbury. 2010. Winter destinations and habitats of Canadian Burrowing Owls. Journal of Raptor Research 44(4):294-299.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr., and W. A. Link. 2012. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2011. Version 07.03.2013 USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.

Conservation Plans:

Environment Canada. 2012. Recovery Strategy for the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) in Canada.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 2003. Status Assessment and Conservation Plan for the Western Burrowing Owl in the United States.