Thanks to Frank Garcia for this fantastic shot of a pair of burrowing owls. Frank took it at one of the busiest sports complexes in Broward County, Florida—and therein lies a tale about the fascinating but beleaguered burrowing owl.
These small birds, just 10 inches long and six ounces in weight, are longish-legged, ground-roaming owls that hunt in daylight and normally live in burrows abandoned by prairie dogs and ground squirrels, or (particularly in Florida) dug by the owls themselves. Such burrows and the the land in which to dig them are harder to find, however, in a landscape taken over by humans, which explains why as few as 10,000 breeding pairs remain and why some of the owls end up nesting in piles of PVC pipe or other human detritus (sometimes intentionally placed by conservationists to help the birds).
It's interesting to note that at breeding time, burrowing owls cover the ground near the entrance to their burrows with animal dung (which attracts dung beetles and other insects for the owls to eat) as well as human junk such as as bottle caps, cigarette butts and tin foil (which may send a signal to other owls that the burrow is occupied). According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, burrowing owls have an unusually high tolerance for carbon dioxide, a trait they evolved so they could survive CO2 buildup in their burrows.
I remember feeling sickened a few years ago when I read accounts of humans taking potshots at these embattled little owls (as a "sport") when the birds left their burrows. We all owe Frank our thanks for showing us how beautiful these owls are, and reminding us of their fragile status in the wild. (Burrowing owls are listed as a "species of special concern" in Florida.) Like many other amazing animals, these birds were here long before we humans came along. Let's hope they can survive us. —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood