Pronghorn are perhaps the most graceful animal native to the high desert country of Central and Eastern Oregon. Golden Eagles are the most majestic, Greater Sage-Grouse the most emblematic.
And Burrowing Owls? They’re the funniest.
Let us never overlook the fact that we’re talking about owls who live in dark underground burrows. Not for them the trees that most other birds prefer. No, they move into holes in the ground excavated by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, skunks, and in our area, badgers.
The owls dig with their beaks and make dirt fly with their feet, reshaping the old burrows to their liking and decorating them with cow manure, feathers, grass, and whatever else strikes their fancy (the manure is thought to attract insects for eating and might mask the owls' scent from predators).
The oddest of owls
Burrowing Owls’ predilection for the subterranean is not their only oddity. They also fly during the day as well as at night. And they don’t hoot; they coo (and warble, cluck, and scream). When threatened, they mimic the threatening hiss of a rattlesnake.
More unusual still are their legs. Imagine yourself as the designer of Burrowing Owls, holding a clump of brown clay in your hands. First, you shape the body to be about the size of a bulky American Robin—which is to say a quite small owl. But then you find yourself with lots of excess clay. What to do? And so you roll the clay into two cigars, each maybe four inches long, and attach them as legs—very, very long and very, very not-owl-like legs. Add some bloomer-like white feathers at the tops of the legs, and you’ve got yourself a Burrowing Owl.
Those long legs are a smart adaptation that allows Burrowing Owls to stand tall like curious meerkats, peering this way and that across the broad expanses of grasslands and sagebrush country where they live. They also use their feathered stilts to speed across the ground chasing prey, their bodies thrust forward like a tourist on a Segway.
It’s actually not their long legs that make Burrowing Owls such a social media darling, subject of hundreds of memes and videos—or at least it's not solely their legs. It’s also their white unibrow, which, when lowered, makes them look comically offended and, when raised, suggests the wide-eyed curiosity of a puppy.
Add to their expressive unibrow their body bobs, 180-degree head tilts to the left and right, and communal nature (so you can see groups of them bobbing and tilting at once), and you start to understand why just about everyone loves a Burrowing Owl.
Adoration isn’t enough
Unfortunately, despite our affection for them, we’re not doing a great job of protecting these owls. It used to be you could get your truck’s grill cleaned by nesting Burrowing Owls while you used the facilities at the Brothers Oasis (the rest area in the tiny town of Brothers, Ore.).
But those owls, and countless others across the country, have been killed by people who were trying to kill something else—ground squirrels, in the case of the mating pair in Brothers. The sad irony is that Burrowing Owls are on the same side as landowners, regularly eating their fill of ground squirrels, pocket gophers, and other rodents.
Today, Burrowing Owls are considered “birds of conservation concern” both federally and in Oregon and seven other Western states. It’s not only poisoning and pesticides that’s causing their declining populations but also (and perhaps mostly) habitat loss. They need flat, open territories—shrub-steppe and grasslands, ideally, or agricultural fields and pastures. In Oregon, they also need badgers around to build burrows.
Which brings us to public lands, which provide the natural habitat that Burrowing Owls and just about every other bird needs. Deepening protections of the wild lands of southeast Oregon, for instance, would help these owls and hundreds of other species. So would installation of artificial nest burrows and the addition of more habitat protection programs throughout Central and Eastern Oregon.
There’s nothing funny about the dangers facing Burrowing Owls, but the good news is that through the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and other like-minded organizations, we can take action to ensure these odd little owls are still out there for a long time to come, cooing and hissing, bobbing and head-tilting, burrowing and bringing us joy.