Burrowing Owls and Short-eared Owls


Though owls are beneficial in numerous ways, and seen as symbols of wisdom, they also have long had an underserved association with sorcery and black magic. Likely because they are nocturnal and their haunting hoots can evoke bone-chilling unease in the still of the night, they have been linked to macabre and evil occurrences since ancient times. To people susceptible to superstition, the stare of an owl roosting on a tree branch in the moonlight conveys a sense of foreboding.

When they’re not hooting, owls are stealthy. While perching patiently, they use their keen vision and acute sense of hearing to detect and track prey. About those eyes: owls appear to stare because they cannot rotate their eyes. To look in different directions, owls must tilt or turn their heads. Some can rotate their heads through a horizontal arc of as much as 270 degrees and can tilt their heads 90 degrees vertically.

The eyes of owls are proportionately huge. While eyes account for 1% of the total weight of the human head, eyes constitute 32% of the head weight in owls — which have a correspondingly smaller brain. Their eyes are designed for exceptional night vision. Owls have three sets of eyelids: one for blinking, one to use when sleeping, and a special protective translucent membrane that owls can use when hunting or when defending themselves.

In addition to hooting, owls can make other sounds, including whistling, screeching, snorting, chittering, hissing, and even a purring sound. Of more than 150 species of owls in the world, about 15 can be found in California.


Among the birds of prey that inhabit the Sacramento Valley, only one — the Burrowing Owl — nests below ground, usually in abandoned ground squirrel burrows. The owls favor open areas, including grasslands, prairies and agricultural fields — including along rice field berms. Burrowing Owls are smaller than other owl species. Adults typically are about 10 inches tall.

Burrowing Owls are distinct not only because of where they hang out, but also because they don’t want to be stereotyped as nocturnal. They’re nearly as likely to be active during daylight hours as they are during nighttime. They feed mostly on large insects, including grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, scorpions, centipedes, moths and caterpillars, along with small mammals, such as mice and ground squirrels or even some small birds. Owls in northern states and Canada migrate south during winter months, but populations in California are relatively stationary.

Before laying eggs, Burrowing Owls lay out a “welcome mat” for prey. They pad the entry to the burrow with animal dung to attract dung beetles and other insects, which the owls easily capture. These owls often nest in small groups.

Habitat loss through land use changes and land development have compromised their habitat. The Burrowing Owl has been given Priority 2 designation on the California Bird Species of Special Concern list, and is a federal species of conservation concern. One scientific estimate indicated that the state’s population of the species has declined by 60 percent since the 1980s.


The Short-eared Owl is another ground-nesting species that inhabits grasslands, marshlands and seasonal wetland habitats. It is among the few owl species to build its own nest, by scraping a depression in the soil and lining it with plant materials and downy feathers. 

Standing about 18 inches tall, Short-eared Owls roost in tall grass or amid shrubs. Some occasionally breed in rice-growing areas even though that is not the principal breeding area of the species. As their name indicates, their ear tuft is so small that it’s often visually imperceptible. 

They feed primarily on rodents, as well as moles and small birds, which they hunt during daylight in agricultural fields, freshwater marshes, fallow fields, and tall grasslands. The Short-eared Owl is on the California Bird Species of Special Concern Priority 3 list.


Because owls feed on rodents and other small mammals, avoidance of poisons as a means to eradicate mice and rats is essential. Research has shown that owls and agriculture can harmoniously coexist when environmentally responsible farm management practices and habit preservation techniques are followed. The Foundation is supportive of multi-species habitat management projects.

Please consider using social media to help spread the word about the valuable work of the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation and our partners in this critically important mission. Thank you.

Learn more about how Sacramento is taking action to conserve birds of the world here

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