Skip to main content

Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

The Burrowing Owl in Tulare County

Jun 28, 2018 11:00AM ● By Enjoy Magazine

Wise Old Owl

July 2018
By Michael O’Brien

“Summer birding” is a concept that does not excite most birders. Spring migration is over. Most chicks have fledged. The heat of the day keeps birds docile and concealed in shady hideaways. One idea to create exciting birding this time of year is to focus on area specialties. One of our area’s most distinctive bird species is the Burrowing Owl. 

While most owls are nocturnal and remain hidden during daylight hours, Burrowing Owl is diurnal. In open defiance of owl etiquette, individuals and pairs can be found midday, standing erect, eyes blazing yellow, perched on the ground or fence posts in open grassland, farmland and fields, nesting in commandeered squirrel or prairie dog burrows.

“The Sibley Guide to Birds” lists the size of a typical bird at 9.5 inches in length with a 21-inch wingspan, weighing in at about 5 ounces. Compare this to Great Horned Owl at 22 inches long, 44-inch wingspan and 3.1 lbs. in girth. Its entire upper side is evenly barred, spotted pale brown and buffy, with pale eyebrows and a white throat. Its flight is smooth and low, swooping up as it approaches and lands on its perch. A distinctive behavior is its bobbing up and down on spindly legs when it’s agitated. Females typically show richer color due to spending time in the burrow nesting. 

Scientific name origins tell much about a bird. Strigidae is the family name for all owls (except Barn Owls), derived from the Latin and Greek word Strix, meaning “owl.” Burrowing Owl’s genus name Athene refers to Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom. Its species name cunicularia is the Latin word for miner or burrower.

Burrowing Owl adapts well to human agricultural practices, so populations in the San Joaquin Valley remain robust. Despite this adaptation, the Tulare County Audubon Society reports that so much land in California is being converted by urban sprawl that the Burrowing Owl has already been eliminated from five counties and isclose to extirpation in six more counties in the last 25 years.  It has been designated a “species of special concern” in California for more than 35 years. The stronghold of the Burrowing Owl in California has been the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys. Burrows are frequently found in the soil along manmade canal banks. Here in California, owls are year-round residents. Most nest on private agricultural property and have no protection. 

The Tulare County Audubon Society also reports that one of the most reliable places to see Burrowing Owls is along the east side of Road 88 between W. Sierra Avenue/Avenue 56 and the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge parking lot. A couple pairs of Burrowing Owls have been occupying this one-mile section of road year-round now for several years. One pair nests in a ground squirrel hole on Road 88 within the first 50 yards of W. Sierra Avenue/Avenue 56. Another pair is nesting on the edge of the north side of the dirt farm road east of the lone farmhouse, about 100 yards from Road 88. Bring your binoculars to spot these unmistakable birds. They will allow a fairly close approach but will dart into their burrow if approached too closely. Otherwise, expect these birds to sit for long periods of time as you enjoy your time with these wise little miners. •

If you go: From exit #65 off Highway 99 at Earlimart, travel west about 5 miles on Sierra Avenue/Avenue 56, then north on Road 88. Note the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge signs marking Road 88.