Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Creature Feature: Burrowing Owl.

Aside from being nocturnal, owls are often depicted as the most human of birds. They have forward-facing eyes and round heads, just like people. Hell, they look almost like natural anime characters with their big eyes and tiny beaks; what's not to love? Sure, the Romans thought they were bloodsucking vampire birds of doom, but at the same time, they were a mascot of Athena/Minerva.

Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) have to be the cutest of the cute owls. They are only slightly bigger than a robin - a large-ish songbird, for those of you not in the States. That said, they are still predators, feeding on rodents and invertebrates. Burrowing owls can be found anywhere in the Americas, so there's a good chance you can find adorable owls near you.

These owls are exactly what they say on the can: owls that live in burrows.  More specifically, they form monogamous family units and raise babies in burrows. Instead of digging their own burrows they move into the homes of ground squirrels and prairie dogs, or whatever small burrowing mammal happens to be in the area. They will also use man-made objects such as pipe as a home. If push comes to shove, yes, they can dig their own burrows. They are nothing if not adaptable.

Although no species of burrowing owl are properly endangered, the arrival of Europeans did not treat them well. Cats and dogs are the greatest enemies of earth-dwelling owl. Nonetheless, the owls have adapted well enough to live on golf courses and airports.  They are tough little birds, even if their range has gotten a lot smaller.

Although burrowing owls frequently make cameos, the book/movie Hoot is all about them. In Hoot, a group of schoolchildren discovers a colony of burrowing owls on the site of a pancake restaurant, and the kids try to save the owls from being killed by development. They have also appeared in Guardians of Gahoole and Rango. Popular little birds indeed, but still not as ubiquitous as Hedwig. Ah, well.

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