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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Bruce D. Taubert

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Hoo Are You? Hoo, Hoo, Hoo, Hoo?
They're not the rock stars of the owl kingdom — that label probably belongs to the spotted owls — but if they could, burrowing owls would smash a guitar over the heads of any obsessed intruder who tried invading their underground spaces.

By Jodi Cisman

For residents of outlying areas such as Litchfield Park, Bullhead City, Oro Valley and many others, the sight of a burrowing owl perched on a fence post or scurrying through a plot of seemingly barren land is pretty common.

Although adult owls exude a kind of self-assuredness, standing tall on watchtowers to protect their burrows, they're actually quite small, rising a mere 10 inches from the ground and weighing only 6 ounces, on average.

But don't let their size fool you. The owls might be small, but they carry the proverbial big stick. Their hoo-hoos, rasps, chucks, chatters and screams can be heard from miles away, and when threatened, the owlets make a low, rattlesnake-like buzz to warn off predators and alert the adults.

Burrowing owls thrive in most states west of the Mississippi River, but unlike other owl species, they live underground in a series of tunnels that can span a 2-mile radius. Because of the nature of their subterranean homes, these little creatures are drawn to sparsely vegetated, dry grasslands and agricultural rangelands.

In Arizona, habitats are continually threatened by land development. When bulldozers begin bulldozing, the burrows become tombs because the owls tend to recede farther into the ground instead of fleeing. When the land is left intact, however, desert dwellings provide an abundance of insects, rodents and small amphibians that make the owls' mouths water. Their favorite insects are crunchy scarab beetles, stinging scorpions and crispy crickets.

On occasion, they treat themselves to prickly pear and cholla cactus fruit, which is a behavior unique to burrowing owls.

Turns out, their desert-floor diet isn't only good for their stomachs, it also helps control the population of tropical house geckos and field mice, especially when the owls have a family of four to five owlets to feed.

Nesting season begins in late March or early April, when female owls begin gathering a wide variety of organic materials to build their nests. The most common component is mammal dung. Researchers believe the dung helps control the microclimate of the burrow and might even attract insects for the owls to feed on.

Female owls lay one or two eggs a day until they collect a clutch of about nine eggs. At that point they spend a month incubating their eggs while the males tend to the hunting. And the system seems to be working. Burrowing owls are to rural Arizona what pigeons are to the inner city. They've been spotted nesting on irrigation canals, golf courses and even near airports, which only seems natural for such self-assured little creatures.

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