Endangerment to burrowing owl habitats has rendered the species itself classified as endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico, and of special concern in most of the western United States. As of 2011, there remain an estimated 10,000 breeding pairs of burrowing owls in the world. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act established provisions to protect the remaining populations in Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Burrowing Owl Habitats
Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are active during both day and night, and nest underground in burrows (hence the name) rather than in trees. They mostly dwell in open grassland areas or bare desert ground, relying upon the burrows dug by small rodents like prairie dogs and ground squirrels for the spaces they make their homes.
Land development has yielded the greatest impact on burrowing owl owls and their grassland habitats, both of which continue to be destroyed during development processes to build roads, homes, farms and more in spite of the established protections on their behalf. Furthermore, with increase proximity to humans and traffic through their previously minimally inhabited areas, owls are vulnerable to being hit by cars while crossing roads and highways.
Agricultural development poses another threat to burrowing owl habitats and populations, as farmers near the homes of burrowing owls use pesticides to diminish the presence of crop-harming pests -- including the prairie dogs the owls rely on to create their habitats. With decreased presence of the rodents they depend on, the species has fewer homes to nest in. Furthermore, the pesticides used to rid farmers of undesired rodents also poses harm to the owls. If they escape the harm of such sprays directly, they are still vulnerable to poisoning when they eat other animals that have consumed the pesticides.
While burrowing owl populations are already threatened by natural predators including hawks, horned owls and foxes, domestic pets join the ranks of their predators with the increase of human populations near their habitats. Especially vulnerable are eggs and young birds.
Climate changes induced by global warming, such as heavy rainstorms that flood burrows in Canada or droughts that increase fire outbreaks in western United States, cause further harm to struggling burrowing owl populations. According to the 2010 State of the Birds Report, increased precipitation variability and extreme storm threats will likely contribute to grasslands being overcome by woody shrubs. Additionally, the report stated that climate change could ultimately cause grassland habitats to become so dried out, due to the increased evaporation that warmer temperatures cause, that they will become uninhabitable for the birds that usually dwell in such environments.
- Defenders of Wildlife; Burrowing Owl; 2011
- Center for Biological Diversity: Saving the Western Burrowing Owl
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Status Assessment and Conservation Plan for the Western Burrowing Owl in the United States; David S. Klute et al.; June 2003
- Sask Schools: Burrowing Owl; J.Giannetta; 2009
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images
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