Burrowing Owls of Nebraska

With bright, round eyes and a swiveling head that reminds one of the little girl in “The Exorcist,” no creature has a more unsettling stare than an owl.

This inquisitive owl was photographed in Silver Creek, Nebraska.

Photos by Jack Nordeen

Standing only nine inches tall, burrowing owls are among the smallest of owls. In many ways they are the odd cousins of the owl family. They nest not in trees, but in holes in the ground. They don’t see well in the dark and hunt mostly by day. Though they eat normal owl foods like insects and rodents, they also have a taste for fruit and seeds. They migrate. Males grow larger than females.

Despite the differences, burrowing owls gaze at the world with familiar yellow-eyed intensity. They have been known by many names through the years, including “prairie dog owl.”

Hundreds of millions of prairie dogs used to live in vast colonies on the Plains, and tens of millions of burrowing owls lived in their abandoned holes.

Because of the difficulties they cause for cattle, prairie dogs are none too popular with ranchers. As prairie dogs have become scarce, so have burrowing owls. Though they are associated other burrowing animals (especially ground squirrels and badgers), steady loss of habitat has them listed as a “species of special concern” in several states. In Nebraska, they are now mostly found in the Panhandle.

Arriving in the spring, burrowing owls nest in any available burrow. The female lays six or more eggs several days apart. The eggs hatch separately over two or three weeks, resulting in a brood of graded sizes. Standing together they resemble, in the words of naturalist Paul Johnsgard, “a portrait of a family that never learned how to practice birth control.”

Though burrowing owls can live nine years in the wild, life is full of dangers. By the time they head south in the fall, half of the newly-hatched brood is likely to have died, often from starvation. Even those that reach adulthood face a host of natural enemies. It is thought that the owls’ habit of spreading bits of cattle or bison dung around burrow entrances may serve to mask scents that would otherwise attract coyotes, badgers and other predators.

Because they are active during the day, and because they are relatively bold and approachable, burrowing owls are easier to watch than their nocturnal cousins. Perched alone on a fencepost or posed together as if for a family portrait, they stand — again in Johnsgard’s words — “like little feathered gnomes.”

And if they are watched, they are more than happy to stare back.

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