The Burrowing Owl is one of the smallest owl species, distinguished by its very long legs and short tail. It lives in open, dry grasslands, deserts, plains, and prairies. In order for Burrowing Owls to successfully hunt and breed they need a large open area where the terrain is gently rolling or flat. The most critical feature is the abundance of active small mammal burrows in the habitat.
The owls nest in an underground burrow, hence the name Burrowing Owl. If burrows are unavailable and the soil is not hard or rocky, the owls may excavate their own. Burrowing Owls will also nest in shallow, underground, man-made structures that have easy access to the surface.
Burrowing Owls were historically found in the grasslands of central and south western Canada, central and southern United States and Mexico, and South America.
The Burrowing Owl is endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico and a species of special concern in Florida and most of the western USA. In Canada, the Burrowing Owl has virtually disappeared from Manitoba and British Columbia. Throughout their remaining range, they exist in greatly diminished numbers in isolated fragments. Fewer than 1,000 pairs are thought to exist in Canada.
The major reasons for declining populations in North America are control programs for prairie dogs and loss of habitat. Where the presence of Burrowing Owls conflicts with development interests, a passive relocation technique has been applied successfully: rather than capturing the birds and transporting them to a new site, the owls are half-coerced, half-enticed to move on their own accord.
Laughing Owl — Extinct
The Laughing Owl was the first documented modern owl to become extinct. The Laughing Owl was found in New Zealand and received its name from the sound of its call, a descending scale of notes. New Zealanders thought that the owl sounded as though it was laughing.
According to naturalists, the owl lived and hunted in open country. The owls nested in the fissures in rock outcrops or even in caves. The entrances to their nests were extremely small. They lined their nests with dried grass and finely powdered rock or dirt. Breeding in September, they fed their young worms, beetles, lizards, and native rats.
Almost as soon as the owl was discovered in the mid-1800s, it began to decline. The main cause of the owl’s decline is thought to be animals that were introduced to the island. Ferrets and weasels were brought to New Zealand to control another species that had been introduced, the rabbit. The Laughing Owl was a small bird with limited flight and made easy prey for the introduced predators.
The last record of the Laughing Owl was in 1914. The last specimen was found dead by a woman in New Zealand. Rumours persist of occasional sightings of the owl but none have ever been confirmed.