Species Assessment For Western Burrowing Owl (Athene Cunicularia Hypugaea) In Wyoming
Author(s):Publication Date: 2004-09
Douglas A Keinath
Sarah J Lantz
Tags: BLM, WLCI, WLCI Agency Report
The Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea), hereafter Burrowing Owl, is a
diurnal bird of prey specialized for grassland and shrub-steppe habitats in western North America.
The Latin species name for the Burrowing Owl, “cunicularia”, means “little miner”, referring to
their unique behavior among North American raptors of nesting underground (Green 1988).
Burrowing Owls will establish nests in earthen burrows, rock piles, eroded stream banks, and
man-made structures such as roadside culverts and eroded irrigation ditches. Zuni Indians referred
to the Burrowing Owl as the “priest of the prairie dogs”, presiding on top of burrows within prairie
dog colonies (Cynomys spp.) in the Great Plains (Haug et al. 1993). Since the time of early
European exploration, Burrowing Owls have been discussed in association with prairie dog
colonies in the West. On an expedition of the Rocky Mountain region in 1819, historian Dr.
Edwin James comments:
“In all the prairie-dog villages we had passed, small owls had been observed
moving briskly about. One was here caught, and on examination found to be the
species denominated Coquimbo, or burrowing owl. . . . This fellow citizen of the
prairie dog, unlike its grave and recluse congeners, is of a social disposition, and
does not retire from the light of the sun, but endures the strongest midday glare of
that luminary, and is in all respects a diurnal bird. . . . With us the owl never
occurred but in the prairie-dog villages, sometimes in a small flock, much scattered
and often perched on different hillocks, at a distance, deceiving the eye with the
appearance of the prairie dog itself, in an erect posture. . . . [They] rise upon the
wing, uttering a note very like that of the prairie dog. . . . The burrows, into which
we have seen the owl descend, resembled in all respects those of the prairie dog,
leading us to suppose either that they were common, though, perhaps, not friendly
occupants of the same burrow, or that the owl was the exclusive tenant of a burrow
gained by the right of conquest” (Scheffer 1945).