by Margaret Pickel
It was a lucky fall day for Athene Cunicularia commonly known as the Burrowing Owl, when two young children found her in the middle of a street in Baytown. Acting quickly, they picked her up and with the help of their dad, brought her to the Wildlife Center.
Our newfound patient was evaluated and was found to have a severe head injury. X-rays revealed no broken bones; however, she could not stand and had total paralysis in her legs and talons. Anti-inflammatory medication was administered. In the weeks that followed, volunteers patiently tried every trick in the book to stimulate feeding.
Rehabbers provided physical therapy and slowly, first one leg and then the other began to function. Time and support at the Wildlife Center gave her the opportunity to recover.
The Burrowing Owl is not as common in the Houston area as in years past. Habitat destruction, subsidence and fire ants are suspected for the decline. The gulf coast is a favorite wintering location and it is believed that the injured owl was either in migration or wintering here. Unfortunately, being ground dwellers often they are killed by vehicles while crossing roadways. Natural enemies abound including coyotes, snakes, feral and domestic cats and dogs.
The Burrowing Owl has been moved to one of the Wildlife Center’s flight cages to allow her to strengthen her wings. Once her wings are strong enough and she is feeding reliably, volunteers will relocate her to an area with a resident population.
Burrowing Owls Fast Facts and Strange Quirks
The Burrowing Owl is a small, long-legged little creature standing about eight inches tall. Crouched at the mouth of its burrow or on a nearby fence post, they appear much smaller. Brown and white markings provide perfect camouflage to blend into foliage and ground cover. The intense yellow eyes are topped by heavy white markings which give the tiny owl the appearance of a scowling old man.
This species commonly nest and roost in burrows previously constructed by other animals. They favor open country with low ground cover such as pastures, golf courses and airports. Parents constantly stand sentry at or near the burrow and mimic a the sound of a rattle snake when startled or anxious.
Unlike most owls, they remain active during the day but most hunting is done at dusk and dawn. During the day, their diet leans strongly towards insects then shifts to small mammals at night. The Burrowing Owl has been observed mounding dried mammal dung at the entrance to the burrow. Biologists believe the dung provides increased humidity, insulation from the heat of the day and attracts a continuous stream of insects (better known as dinner).
Burrowing Owls have been known to live in excess of nine years in the wild. The owls received national attention in Carl Hiaasen’s novel “Hoot”. A movie adaptation was released in 2006. The novel and movie portrays how a group of school kids tried to halt the habitat destruction of Burrowing Owls in Florida.