THE HOWDY BIRD
By Jeannie Marcure
According to a recent article in the Yakima Herald Republic, the pioneers often saw the bird that we know today as the Burrowing Owl as they crossed the western prairies. Because it stood at the entrance to its burrow, bobbing up and down as if to greet them, they soon nicknamed it the “Howdy Bird.” Unfortunately, these days most of us haven’t had the opportunity to be greeted by these friendly little birds, as their populations seem to be declining throughout their range, which is west of the Mississippi, north to Canada and south to Mexico.
At approximately the same size as a robin and with a home underground, the Burrowing Owl is certainly unique! It is also one of the first birds that I recall from my childhood on a farm in central South Dakota. One of the daily chores that I helped with in those days was bringing the cattle in from the pasture for the night and it was during these daily treks to the pasture that I first encountered these small sentinels standing in the mouths of their burrows quietly watching us.
Recently, after spending most of my adult life in the Flathead Valley and becoming an avid birder, I began a quest to see these amazing little birds again. Since Burrowing Owls prefer an open habitat of prairie or grassland with few or no trees I realized that this search would involve travel so in the early spring of 2014 I contacted the MOB Montana online birding forum for help. After a few weeks of correspondence with some very helpful birders from Eastern Montana, I had several possible locations where I might find resident Burrowing Owls. A camping trip to the Three Forks area resulted in a memorable morning spent quietly observing and photographing these novel little birds from our car and also inspired me to learn more about them.
In Montana, Burrowing Owls are migratory, arriving in April and leaving in September. As I have already mentioned, they prefer an open habitat of prairie or grassland and usually live in holes made by badgers, prairie dogs or other small mammals. They are, however, capable of doing their own excavation if necessary, and even in their “borrowed” homes often do some remodeling.
Unlike other species of owls in which the female is usually larger, the male and female Burrowing Owl are the same size, with a height of 7 to 10 inches, a wingspan of 19 to 23 inches and a weight of approximately 5 ounces. Though often thought to be diurnal because they are often seen resting on fence posts in the daytime, Burrowing Owls hunt at night and are most active at dusk and dawn. Because he spends more time out of the burrow during daylight hours, the male tends to be somewhat lighter in color than the female. Both have brown backs with white spots and underparts of white with brown barring. Distinctive white eyebrows extend to the bill and the head lacks ear tufts. Their most noticeable feature is their relatively long legs, which were probably developed because of their life in open grasslands. These enable them to sprint as well as fly while stalking their favorite prey of rodents, birds, reptiles and insects.
Burrowing Owls form monogamous pairs for the nesting season. The chosen burrow is usually 8 to 12 feet in length with an enlarged chamber at the far end. It is lined with various materials such as feathers, paper and grass clippings. If available, manure is spread around the mouth of the nest site to attract insects for future meals. Occurring in early spring, courtship consists of aerial flights, hovering and chatty calls. As things progress, the male feeds his mate near the nest site and the pair nibble each other’s bills. Burrowing Owls often live in loose colonies with the adults standing guard at the mouths of the burrows. If you happen to accidently approach a nest site the owls will dive inside rather than fly. They may also make a hissing sound that sounds like a rattlesnake. As you can imagine, this behavior is very effective in keeping unwanted visitors away!
The female incubates the 3 to 12 eggs with the male bringing her food during this 28-day period. The hatchlings are covered with white downy feathers and have their eyes closed. For the first one to two weeks the female remains in the burrow with the babies while the male provides the food. After the young emerge from the burrow at about 2 weeks, they are often seen lined up at the mouth of the nest site. Flight training begins at 4 weeks and they can fly quite well by 6 weeks, although they remain with their parents until they are 12 weeks old.
Due to a negative short-term population trend, Burrowing Owls are considered a species of concern in Montana. This decline is blamed on the eradication of Prairie Dog towns, as well as loss of habitat due to development. In Canada as well as California and Washington, Burrowing Owls are considered endangered and some efforts have been made to stabilize existing populations with the use of artificial plastic burrows. You can read about one particularly successful project near the Salton Sea in California at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Burrowing_Owl.
If you happen to be lucky enough to see a Burrowing Owl during your travels this summer, be sure to stop and say “HOWDY,” but also please be careful not to disturb them in any way. Disturbance of breeding birds often causes the nest to be abandoned. Remember that your car makes a great observation/photography blind.