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August 22: Burrowing Owls

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If you are like most people, you could count on two hands the number of times you have seen an owl along the byways, skyways and towns in North Dakota. Because an owl generally lives alone and because most owls hunt for food at night, they are hard to find. When you do see an owl, its “solemn appearance” is striking, for an owl seems to stare back at you.

North Dakota has about a dozen different kinds of owls, ranging in size from the Great Gray Owl, which is rarely seen; the Great Horned Owl, which is the one seen most-often; the Snowy Owl, an infrequent winter visitor that blends in with the snow. The American Barn Owl is sometimes viewed, while the Northern Hawk Owl is rarely seen at all. Long-Eared Owls are also very secretive and are hard to locate. There’s the Boreal Owl, so named for its habitat of northern woodlands. One you might see is the Short Eared Owl, which often hunts during the day. There’s the Eastern Screech Owl, and the small Northern Saw-Whet Owl.

Finally, there’s the Burrowing Owl, which lives in open grasslands. It was once abundant in North Dakota, but seen nowadays in the state’s southwest.

On this date, in 1965, a newspaper article reported the main characteristics of burrowing owls, noting that they are among the “few bird species to nest in burrows in the ground.”

The burrowing owl occupies abandoned prairie-dog dens, rabbit burrows, or badger holes. They measure only 9 to 11 inches from feet to head, with a short tail, and its coloring is said to be “grayish brown profusely spotted with white.” It’s a small owl with large yellow eyes, and its long legs allow it to sprint after prey.

The chance of spotting a burrowing owls is higher, because they hunt by night and by day. They seek out mice, voles, grasshoppers, and even the occasional cricket, beetle, or caterpillar for seasonal variety. These owls can also catch flying insects in mid-air.

If you wish to see a burrowing owl, look for them in the west, between April and September, before this snowbird heads south.

Dakota Datebook by Professor Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.

“Burrowing Owls Are Rare in Minnesota,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 22, 1965, p. 167.
Patricia Stockdill, “Rancher Nurtures Feathered Families by Creating Owl homes in His Pasture,” and “Tiny Raptors Bob and Burrow,” Bismarck Tribune, July 16, 1994, p. 9.
“Burrowing Owl,” North Dakota Game and Fish, gf.nd.gov, accessed March 19, 2022.
“The Friendly Owl,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, November 21, 1895, p. 3.
“The Burrowing Owl,” Williston Graphic, May 30, 1901, p. 3.
Janelle Masters, “Morton County Birding Has Its Rewards,” Bismarck Tribune, September 28, 2005, p. 8C.
Dan Svingen, “Striving to Get a Handle on Burrowing Owls,” Bismarck Tribune, July 28, 2004, p 22.
“Burrowing Owl,” Audubon Guide to North American Birds, https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/burrowing-owl, accessed July 15, 2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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