For the Birds Radio Program: Burrowing Owl

Original Air Date: June 13, 1997

When a little owl from the Great Plains turned up in Duluth, plenty of birders were around to enjoy it. 4:25 date confirmed.

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Saturday was the Duluth Audubon Society’s annual Birdathon, our big birding event of the year, when people go out in teams to see as many birds as they can in St. Louis County during a 24-hour period. It’s always cool to see a lot of birds, and on this annual occasion, we heighten the acquisitiveness by adding the element of competition. To win, a team must be made of competent birders who among themselves recognize every possible call note and song at a distance, plan a strategy and route to maximize the habitats visited, and scout out any rare birds hanging around ahead of time. And every member of the team must be a diehard competitor who can bird 18 or 20 hours straight without going bonkers or falling asleep.

With so many birders combing St. Louis County for every bird they can find, rarities are bound to show up on every Big Day. This year was no exception. A Ross’s Goose showed up at the Meadowlands sewage ponds, and another was hanging out in Duluth along with quite a few rare shorebirds, including a Red Knot, Red-necked Phalarope, Whimbrels, and Willets. Most of these were at 40th Avenue West, where the Army Corps of Engineers brings the dredge spoils from the harbor. This is also where the bird of the day—perhaps the year—turned up. For perched atop the dirt mounds for virtually every birder in the state to see on Saturday was a Burrowing Owl.

This little predator belongs far away, in the prairie dog towns of the Great Plains. The Minnesota DNR’s non-game wildlife program has worked to re-establish Burrowing Owls in the western prairie areas of the state, but how this little vagrant found its way to Duluth is a mystery, and why it came to 40th precisely on the day of our Birdathon is a miracle. Birders scoured the area on Sunday, but the little owl had disappeared, apparently for good.

Burrowing Owls have long legs, the better for standing tall and surveying their treeless world. Many of them live in prairie-dog burrows, and they eat all manner of large insects, small reptiles, and small mammals. They often catch dragonflies and grasshoppers on the wing, being much more maneuverable than most other owls, but their habit of flying low in search of prey also causes them to be killed in disproportionate numbers by cars. One of their interesting habits is to follow dogs or horses around, picking off insects and other small creatures stirred up by the large mammals.

Burrowing Owls can build their own burrows or enlarge existing ones with their feet, but they prefer to hire rodents as their general contractors and not bother with do-it-yourself home improvement projects. Overall they live in harmony with their rodent hosts, but sometimes snack on a baby prairie dog or two, essentially biting the hand that houses them. I visited the cemetery at the San Xavier Mission near Tucson a couple of summers ago to find a host of some species of rodents burrowing into the graves, along with over 50 Burrowing Owls. The dead people in that cemetery certainly don’t want for company.

But most of the Burrowing Owls I’ve seen in my life have been in prairie dog towns. Once when I was in South Dakota, I wanted to show my kids a Burrowing Owl. We found the perfect prairie dog town, and as I searched the mounds of dirt, sure enough, I saw a familiar form. The kids and I were so happy to see this cool little bird, but I really wanted to get a closer look. So I crept up on the placid bird, barely breathing. It was remarkably calm, staring off into the distance, seemingly not noticing me at all as I dew ever closer. Suddenly it dawned at me that this bird was a bit too placid. I cut the quiet routine and ran up to it. I was practically stepping on it before I realized what it really was—a pile of buffalo dung.

The lost little owl was gone by the next day. We hope it’s made its way West, back to its home where the buffalo roam, where it won’t be so conspicuous and rare, but can simply blend in with the buffalo pies.