After a Hiatus of 30 Years, Burrowing Owl Chicks Hatch at the National Zoo

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo welcomed two burrowing owl chicks Aug. 2—the first hatching of this species at the Zoo in 30 years. The chicks’ parents, a 5-year-old male and 4-year-old female, have been at the Zoo since June 2006.

The last time burrowing owls successfully bred at the National Zoo was in the late 1970s. A recent population-management plan recommended breeding the Zoo’s current adult pair. The chicks are with their parents in the Zoo’s Bird House. Currently, there is semi-transparent filter paper covering their exhibit, providing the chicks with privacy. As they become more comfortable with their new surroundings, the paper will slowly be removed.

Burrowing owls are named for their habit of living in underground burrows. The Zuni Indians called these owls the “priest of the prairie dogs” because they often nest and roost in empty prairie dog burrows. At the Zoo, the owls are provided with tunnels and underground nest boxes.
The female incubates the eggs for 28 to 30 days, while the male hunts and supplies the female with food. When they hatch, the chicks are helpless and their eyes are closed. By age 2½ weeks, the chicks are able to control their body temperature and begin to emerge from their burrows to beg for food. At 3 weeks old, they begin jumping and flapping their wings, and at 4 weeks, they are able to take short flights. The chicks are easy to identify by their juvenile plumage, which lacks any of the white bars and spots of the adults.

Burrowing owls are one of the smallest owl species in North America. The average adult is 10 inches in length—slightly larger than an American robin. Much of the population is migratory, though their migration routes and locations are not well understood. Burrowing owls are distributed from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean and from the Canadian prairie provinces into South America. They are also found in Florida and the Caribbean islands. Burrowing owls have a highly variable diet, which includes invertebrates and small vertebrates. They mainly eat large insects, small rodents and frogs. The greatest threat to burrowing owls is habitat destruction and degradation caused by land development.