Speotyto cunicularia Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
SPECIES OF SPECIAL CONCERN
Burrowing owls are about the size of a soda can. Both sexes look alike. They have long legs, almost bare of feathers, an adaptation for digging burrows.
In Florida, burrowing owls occurs in open, well-drained uplands with low, sparse ground cover. These conditions were historically prevalent in the dry prairies of the central peninsula. In the 1880’s huge colonies of burrowing owls were reported on the Osceola Plains – one observer noted “hundreds of pairs” near lake Kissimmee.
Burrowing owls still occur in dry prairies in central Florida, but they are now also found on heavily grazed pastures, airports, golf courses, athletic fields and in partially developed residential and industrial areas. Artificial habitats are very important for maintaining current population numbers and distribution. Statewide, the population is estimated at 3,000-10,000 pairs.
In many places the greatest cause of mortality among young birds was fire ant predation. Owls are also hit by mowers and attacked by domestic dogs.
Burrowing owls are unique among Florida birds in their habit of nesting in underground burrows. Authorities differ as to whether the owls dig their own burrows or appropriate deserted burrows of other animals such as gopher tortoises. They can be induced to dig a burrow by removing a small area of sod.
Burrowing owls feed on mole crickets, June beetles and in south Florida, brown anoles and Cuban tree frogs. Other prey includes small rodents, crayfish, various frogs and toads, spiders and many species of insects.
A recent University of Florida study suggest that burrowing owls may use pieces of manure as bait to “fish” for beetles. After noticing that burrowing owls frequently brought pieces of animal dung back to their burrows, researchers set up a study where they artificially manipulated the amount of dung at nests – dung was removed from half the nests and left at the remainder of the nests. When they looked at the owls' regurgitated pellets researchers and found that the owls with dung bait ate ten times more dung beetles than the owls without dung bait.
The Florida Burrowing owl is a Species of Special concern. They can thrive in disturbed areas if mowing or prescribed burning maintains low ground cover for nesting and “keep out” signs are posted around nests in residential areas to reduce disturbance.
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