One of the cool things about Colorado is that, with so many diverse ecosystems, you never know what you might see. Prairie dogs are a familiar sight along the Front Range, but only about 2% of historic black-tailed prairie dog habitat remains. Loss of habitat has been due to human encroachment via farming, ranching, and subdivision-building. This means there is less habitat for animals that depend on prairie dogs for their livelihood, like these burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia), which I’ve been seeing lately at Coyote Ridge open space near Fort Collins.
Burrowing owls arrive in Colorado in March or April to breed and nest and they may lay as many as a dozen eggs, though few of those chicks survive to adulthood. Because burrowing owls are active during the day as well as at night, they’re relatively easy to see if you can find the right place. However, burrowing owls are a State-threatened species here in Colorado, so it could be tricky to find where they’re nesting. The owls depend on prairie dogs because they take over unused prairie dog burrows so threats to prairie dog colonies are also threats to burrowing owls.
Burrowing owls are a small (only about 10 inches tall), spotty brown bird with long legs and big yellow eyes framed by white eyebrows that can make them look a little angry. Their long legs allows them to perch atop prairie dog mounds or on taller vegetation to see over the short grasses they prefer to make their homes amidst. Their long legs also allow them to run in addition to flying in order to escape predators, such as coyotes, hawks and eagles, or, in more urbanized areas, domestic cats and dogs, or to find prey.
Burrowing owls eat a whole host of things from mammals like small rodents, to birds, to reptiles and insects. This time of year grasshoppers are plentiful, so no doubt they’re a staple of their summer diet. Around mid-October, birds in the northern reaches of their range, including Colorado, migrate to the southern U.S., Mexico, or Central America. Other birds where temperatures are more consistent, such as southern portions of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, are year-round residents. Amazingly, burrowing owls are not only present in the western U.S., but also in Florida, and areas in South America. It’s a surprisingly wide-spread species, which may be why it’s not listed as Federally endangered despite declines in its population.
A good time to see burrowing owls is in the early morning or evening. At Coyote Ridge, you can easily see them with binoculars, though a spotting scope can be helpful to make out more details. Check them out! They probably won’t be around too much longer; fall is creeping up on us and winter will be close behind.