Athene cunicularia Order: Strigiformes Family: Strigidae
To maximize lifelong welfare of an owl that is going to participate in ambassador animal programs, and as such be exposed to close contact with humans and a variety of stimuli that could otherwise be intimidating or inducive of unavoidable stress, it is recommended to hand-rear individuals slated to become ambassadors. Hand-rearing should occur during the formative stage of life, within the first few months of hatching. Hand-rearing owls allows the human caretaker to expose the owl from an early age to a variety of conditions it may encounter as an ambassador (crowds, vehicles, buildings, novel noises, etc.) while it is at the best stage to learn these stimuli are non-threatening, which generally helps them adapt to life under human care, in their roles as ambassadors, much more than parent-reared owls.
Natural History Information
Range and Habitat
Two burrowing owl races from the West Indies have become extinct in historical times: A.c. amaura of Antigue Island, Nevis Island and St Christopher Island; and A.c. guadeloupenis of Marie Galante Island. Both became extinct at the end of the 19th century shortly after the introduction of the mongoose.
The range of the burrowing owls includes non-breeding, year-round, and breeding populations. Non-breeding populations range from Central America (Honduras) northward along the east coast of Central America into east Texas and Louisiana. They also continue northward from the west coast of Central America to just south of the borders of Arizona and New Mexico. From here, the year-round populations reside. The year-round population extends north through Baja peninsula and southern California, eastward to central Arizona and New Mexico and northern Texas. Finally, the breeding range extends north through the prairies of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba Canada. There is a resident population in central and south Florida, and Caribbean Islands.
The species is limited to open country with short vegetation: well-drained grasslands, steppes, deserts and prairies. Although a few specimens have been seen in montane regions, there has been no known nesting in these areas. Populations are often associated with burrowing mammals. Burrowing owls are adaptable to human habitation and can be found in agricultural areas as well as golf courses, cemeteries, road allowances, airports, vacant lots in residential areas, fairgrounds and college campuses. The availability of a nest burrow is an essential requirement for the Western burrowing owl. In Florida, where the owls can dig their own burrows, burrowing animals are not essential.
Life span is 6-8 years in the wild, the oldest known individual was 11. Average lifespan under human care is 10 years.
Burrowing owls have an important role in maintaining a balance in populations of their prey, small mammals and insects, and also serve and prey themselves.
Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information
Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles
- Burrowing owls have been housed in both indoor and outdoor enclosures. The high and low temps for outdoor temps range from -10F to 113F but not at the same enclosure. The broadest reported range for a single enclosure is the Living Desert which had a range between 10F and 113F. These are extremes though and should not be considered normal temperatures for day to day exposures.
- This species can be successfully managed on a variety of substrates, such as pea-gravel, sand, dirt, grass.
Social Housing/Colony Management
- Most institutions house burrowing owls in pairs (1.1) but other combinations have also been done successfully including all male groups of up to four, 1 male and 2 females, 2 males, 2 females and 2 males and 1 female. One institution had a problem with 2.2 and had to separate them so breeding pairs may have trouble being housed together. Keep in mind that many of these combinations have been in exhibits and the dynamics may change with housing in typical program animal holding enclosures.
Other General Housing Requirements or Management information
- Multiple perching options are necessary to maintain good foot health.
- Provide nest boxes and other places to enter and hide so birds can express natural burrowing behaviors. Perching should also be provided because although this species spends a lot of time on the ground, they also fly up to get better views or if they feel nervous.
- Space should meet minimum USFW standards.
- Enclosure be constructed with materials that reduce the possibility of damage to the feathers or to the owl itself (for example, bare wire mesh is less desirable than vertical bars or coated mesh).
- A double door mew entrance is ideal for any bird of prey. This allows handlers to enter the enclosure safely and without incident.
Diet in the Wild
- In the wild, burrowing owls feed on a wide variety of prey, changing food habitats as location and time of year determine availability. Large arthropods, mainly beetles and grasshoppers, compromise a large portion of their diet. Small mammals, especially mice, rats, gophers, and ground squirrels, are also important food items. Other prey animals include reptiles and amphibians, scorpions, young cottontail rabbits, bats, and birds such as sparrows and horned larks. Unlike other owls, they also eat fruit and seeds, especially the fruit of Tesejilla and prickly pear cactus.
Diet under human care
- In human care, burrowing owls are fed chicks, mice, fuzzy mice, and crickets.
- Philadelphia Zoo has had one bird develop neurologic issues, the presumed cause (but never definitively confirmed) was exposure to West Nile Virus. Since then, birds have been vaccinated against WNV.
Enrichment & Training
Behavioral Relevant Information
- Raptors seize and rip apart their prey. Offering whole prey items, shreddable enrichment items, items they can grab and manipulate with their talons or shred with their beaks are all good forms of enrichment.
- Changing perches within their habitat.
- Addition of browse.
- Artificial tunnels.
- The most successful enrichment devices appear to be items that can be footed and shredded, such as paper products, cardboard boxes, lettuce, melons, squash or other produce. These items can be provided alone or stuffed with prey or diet, although raptors should be monitored for ingestion of foreign objects if food is delivered with a novel item. Other successful items include tennis balls, holl-ee rollers, and canvas dog toys, which present opportunities for seizing, grabbing, mock “killing,” and mantling.
- Daily enrichment is recommended.
Other Enrichment Resources
- AZA’s Raptor TAG has a comprehensive list of raptor-appropriate enrichment as well as other suggestions on raptor enrichment programs on their website.
- Voluntary step-up to glove
- Voluntary loading into crate
- Voluntary scale
- Voluntary nail trim
- A-B flights
- Calm behavior on glove
Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement
- Using food and/or weight management as part of a good behavioral management program facilitates training by creating a learning environment in which owls want to participate. Training strategies that involve reducing food offered to the point of compromising the health of the bird are considered unacceptable. Food management and weight management practices that are safe for the owl and trainers, provide for the health and welfare of the owl, and facilitate training are recommended.
- Food and or weight management should be done with an understanding of the process and considerations. The decision to use weight management should not be taken lightly nor undertaken at all by staff who do not have a comprehensive understanding of managing weight and diet.
Colony or Breeding Management
- Notes species is housed or managed socially or for breeding purposes.
- Dimorphism or practiced ways to individually mark species (such as those in colonies, like giant millipedes).
Find detailed natural history and conservation information on the Raptor TAG’s Burrowing Owl page as well as studbook.
Wild owl populations face a multitude of threats; fortunately, there are a number of individual and community-level actions that people can take to help to protect owls in the wild. Some examples are listed below.
Pesticide and Rodenticide use:
As predators of rodents, all raptors, including owls, are incredibly vulnerable to rodenticide poisoning. Encourage responsibly use and properly manage rodenticides. Owls are also susceptible to pesticide biomagnification and mercury poisoning. Encourage people to avoid using pesticides on their lawns, and instead rely on native plantings or other environmentally responsible methods of pest management.
Roadside litter is a threat to many owl species. Rodents are attracted to the litter, and a low-flying owl in pursuit of a rodent is vulnerable to a vehicular collision. Encourage visitors to dispose of their trash in an appropriate receptacle, not on the roadside, even if it is biodegradable. Owls are also susceptible to death through barbed wire or electrocution from power lines. We can help by supporting man-made barriers that keep birds away from high-electricity areas. Owls are highly sensitive nesters, and even slight disturbances can lead to abandonment. We can help by reducing activity in known nesting areas and avoiding owl nests when trimming trees or in forestry management.
Protecting habitat and supporting conservation organizations can help to protect populations of both predator and prey species.
Threats and Conservation Status
According to the IUCN Red List, the burrowing owl populations are large and not vulnerable, currently listed as a species of Least Concern. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does not have the burrowing owl listed under the Endangered Species Act. The main threat to these owls is the loss of habitat due to encroachment of humans. Some studies suggest populations are declining, which may cause a ripple effect through their ecosystem. However in some cases the encroachment of humans has deforested areas and created pastureland, which has increased the burrowing owl’s range.
Interesting Natural History Information
Did you know…
- Like other owl species, burrowing owls can turn their heads almost 270 degrees. This movement is an adaptation because owls’ eyes cannot move in their sockets like other animals.
- They have an inner eyelid to shield sensitive retina from sunlight, and to protect against air and dust during flight.
- The burrowing owl has also been known as ground owl, prairie dog owl, rattlesnake owl, howdy owl, cuckoo owl, tunnel owl, gopher owl, and hill owl.
- The first published report of the burrowing owl was by an Italian Jesuit priest stationed in Chile. His description appeared in a book he wrote on the natural history of the country in 1782. The Latin word cunicularius means mine, or miner – an apt description for a bird that makes its home beneath the ground.
Handling & Presentation Tips
- This species may be presented on glove, on perch, or in free-flight demonstrations. For tethered presentation, whether that is to the glove or to a perch, attention should be paid to avoid bating. Bating is not something that should be accepted from owls, if there are instances of such, it is an indication of discomfort, with the handler or the situation, and that discomfort should be addressed, not ignored.
Pubic Contact and Interaction Guidelines
- Direct public contact with this species is not advisable, however some facilities do allow members of the public to have burrowing owl on gloved hand.
- Touching is not advisable.
- Transport box suggestions Raptor Rig and Varikennel.
- A couple things to keep in mind, crates should not be carried by the handle, but rather using two hands on either side of the crate and supporting it adequately. Swinging transport crates around and or moving them on a bumpy cart may create negative association for the bird, due to an uncomfortable ride and decrease the likelihood that the bird will go in the box on future occasions. If the perch is to low for the bird, their tail feathers may get painted with fecal matter which does not look good on presentation. Varikennel you are able to adjust the height of the perch.
- This species can be trained to voluntarily enter a crate either from the glove or directly from their enclosure. Continuous reinforcement of voluntary crate behaviors as well as dedication to their comfort and safety while in the crate is important to maintaining solid and reliable crate behavior.
Contact the SSP coordinator, Yvonne Strode, if you are interested in acquiring a burrowing owl as an ambassador animal.
- Burrowing Owl Studbook (2018)
- IAATE: Food and Weight Management
- IAATE: POSITION STATEMENT WELFARE OF HUMAN-REARED VS PARENT-REARED OWLS IN AMBASSADOR ANIMAL PROGRAMS
- IAATE: Tethering and Using Jesses
- IAATE Webinar with Steve Martin: An Ambassador Owl Conundrum; To Parent-rear or Human-rear? A Complicated Question.
- EAZA Falconiformes TAG:Husbandry and Management Guidelines for Demonstration Birds
- AASAG Newsletter Winter 2017: Imprinted vs. Parent Reared Owls Participating in Programs Perspectives from Four Facilities
- The AZA’s Raptor TAG
Contributors and Citations
- The Philadelphia Zoo
- Yvonne Strode, editor of the AZA Burrowing Owl Studbook
- SSP Education Advisor: Lily Mleczko Wildlife Conservation Society, Queens Zoo
- Sections adapted from the Owl Care Manual draft Ambassador Animal chapter prepared by:
- Jacque Williamson, Brandywine Zoo
- Helen Dishaw, Jackie Kozlowski, Tracy Aviary
- Kit Lacy, Cascades Raptor Center
- Amy Fennell, Natural Encounters, Inc.
Comments from the Rating System
- Zoo America: Hand-raised birds were very aggressive and difficult to train.
- Philadelphia Zoo: we have worked with captive born but not hand raised birds and they have worked well. The initial training is time consuming because you have to build a positive relationship with the bird but once that training is complete, they have been fine with program use.
Top Photo Credit: credit the “header” photo of the species