Burrowing Owl: Who Are You?

A burrowing owl peeks out from a desert tortoise burrow.

A burrowing owl peeks out from a desert tortoise burrow.

My job at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center is seasonal and based on the tortoises’ schedule; they are not very active during the winter, so my work season is April to the end of October. As time goes by, we have translocated many of our desert tortoises into the Mojave Desert. They used to live in pens of various sizes with wire fencing or cement walls encompassing their living areas. When the tortoises move out, and these pens become empty, it is not unusual for unexpected new “tenants” to move in.

One such new tenant arrived around July and moved into a pen we call Pen 4. The pen is about 1.5 acres. The other research assistants who are working here this year and I spent a couple of days in June walking through this pen making sure all of its desert tortoise occupants had been found and prepared for their move into the wild or placed into other pens for consolidation reasons. In July, someone discovered that a burrowing owl was living in a natural dirt burrow in the ground under a creosote bush in Pen 4! The burrow was one that a tortoise had probably created long ago. Photography is my hobby, and I have always wanted to get a photo of this pretty bird.

Does "she" have a family nearby?

Does “she” have a family nearby?

Where as we associate owls as being a nighttime bird, burrowing owls are active during the day. Their range is mostly in the western United States, parts of Canada, down through Mexico and into South America. Some can be found in Florida and the Caribbean. The one that is living in our facility here near Las Vegas would be considered the northern (or western) burrowing owl.

I will refer to our owl as “she,” even though I am not really sure. It is difficult to tell with this type of bird. Because my job is to tend to the needs of our desert tortoises, I did not have the time to observe if the owl was nesting.

Eventually, on a few occasions when I was near Pen 4 and had a few minutes to spare, I would stop and get out of the work vehicle I was driving, step into the pen, and check on our featured friend. I would cautiously approach her only to a point where I felt she would not think I was a threat. I did not want to scare her into thinking she was no longer in a safe place. One day, I brought my good camera with me and was able to get a cute photo of the owl watching me!

Paul Griese is a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read his previous post, Seasons of a Research Assistant.

One Response to Burrowing Owl: Who Are You?

  1. thanks for sharing the pics. that owl has some piercing eyes. owl eyes make me think they’re surprised or alert or trying to win a staring contest (although that is all anthropomorphic conjecture)