On August 2, the National Zoo welcomed two burrowing owl chicks—the first hatching of this species at the Zoo in 30 years. A recent population management plan recommended breeding the Zoo’s current adult pair. The burrowing owl is named for their habit of living in underground burrows. It can excavate its own hole but usually uses a burrow dug by another animal.
The chicks are with their parents in the Zoo’s Bird House. Currently, there is semi-transparent filter paper covering their exhibit, providing the chicks with privacy. As they become more comfortable with their new surroundings, the paper will gradually be removed.
About Burrowing Owls
The burrowing owl is named for their habit of living in underground burrows. It can excavate its own hole but usually uses a burrow dug by another animal. Zuni Indians called the burrowing owl the “priest of the prairie dogs” because it sometimes nests and roosts in empty prairie dog burrows. The Zoo's owls are provided with tunnels and underground nest boxes.
The female incubates the eggs for 28 to 30 days, while the male hunts and supplies the female with food. When they hatch, the chicks are helpless and their eyes are closed. By two and a half weeks, the chicks are able to control their body temperature and begin to emerge from their burrows to beg for food. At three weeks old, they begin jumping and flapping their wings, and at four weeks, they are able to take short flights. The chicks are easy to identify by their juvenile plumage, which lacks any of the white bars and spots of the adults.
Burrowing owls are covered in brown-spotted feathers, have long legs, and distinctive white eyebrows above their bright yellow eyes. They are one of the smallest owls in North America. Their total length is about ten inches (slightly larger than an American robin), and they weigh about five ounces.
Much of the population is migratory, although their migration routes and locations are not well understood. Burrowing owls are distributed from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean and from the Canadian prairie provinces into South America. They are also found in Florida and the Caribbean islands. Burrowing owls have a highly variable diet, which includes invertebrates and small vertebrates. They mainly eat large insects, small rodents, and frogs. The greatest threat to burrowing owls is habitat destruction and degradation caused by land development and agriculture.