Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia floridana)
Burrowing Owl - Eric Gerber
"Owl with a Cute Factor" ... One cannot overlook these little creatures that inhabit areas of central and south Florida, Only two subspecies of Burrowing Owls occur in North America, the Florida Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia floridana), which is found primarily in Florida and on the Bahama Islands, and the western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), which is found throughout Mexico, the western United States, and southwestern Canada. I've only visited the colonies in Cape Coral once as a side trip while visiting family friends in Sarasota. Of course this was long before I had an interest in avian or nature photography. One could spend hours observing these little birds while being entertained by their curious and comical antics.
Eric Gerber has family near the area and was kind enough to furnish some of his images from a recent trip this winter to add to this article. He also included a small narrative with his images and I have included it below.
Athene cunicularia floridana - Eric Gerber
"I'm fortunate to have family living in south Florida which has allowed me to photograph Burrowing Owls on many trips to south and central Florida. Florida is one of the most amazing states in the U.S. for avian and wildlife photography. The burrowing owls live in open grasslands and they have adapted well to coexisting in areas where people live. They are often found in empty lots in and around homes and public buildings. They are also found in many community parks and they have grown so used to people I've seen people walking their dogs (on a leash) right in front of these little Owls and they don't even pay attention to them. On my last trip to Florida I watched a group of local teens playing football next to a burrow with two owls outside the entrance and they didn't move an inch when the football rolled right past them. They just watched the football as it rolled by!" - Eric Gerber
The Florida burrowing owl is currently classified as a "species of special concern" by the state. This means burrowing owls, their eggs and nesting burrows have been protected from harassment and/or disturbance by state law since 1979. Burrowing owls are also protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Many of the owls fall victim to natural predators like Hawks and foxes but are also threatened by domestic animals such as dogs and cats. Some are killed by flying into the paths of moving automobiles. Real estate development pressures have reduced their favorable habitat significantly. In many places the greatest cause of mortality among young birds is fire ant predation.
Many of the local residents assist in the preservation of the habitat and the protection of the owls. Often they will stake out the burrow locations with a string perimeter to insure they are not trampled or run over by lawn mowers or any other implements. The city of Cape Coral offers a "Starter Burrow" program for those wishing to attract the owls to their property.
Burrowing Owls - Eric Gerber
Florida Burrowing Owl Biology
The Florida Burrowing Owl is a small owl roughly 9 inches in length with an average wingspan of about 22 inches. Their average weight is only about 5 ounces. The Burrowing Owl is the only North American species where the male is larger than the female. Unlike the nocturnal nature of most owls the Burrowing Owl is most active during the daylight hours.
Burrowing Owl - Eric Gerber
Burrowing Owls prey on insects and invertebrates. Of the invertebrate prey taken, the owl seems to especially prefer larger species such as grasshoppers, scorpions, large beetles, moths, and crickets. Other sources of food include a vast array of small mammals that consist of mice, rats, voles, gophers, and even bats. They also will prey on small birds with a favorite being the Horned Lark as well as many small song birds. The owls tend to prey on insects and birds during the day and small mammals at night.
Breeding season begins in February and last through July. The female will lay a clutch of between 2 and 6 eggs. However, egg-laying may occur as early as October and as late as May. The incubation period is normally 28 to 30 days. Young owls emerge from the burrow at approximately two weeks of age. After four weeks, the young are able to take short flights and can fly well at six weeks of age. Fledging normally occurs about 42-45 days after hatching. The parents will care for their young for roughly 12 weeks.
Florida Burrowing Owl colonies are loosely organized with burrows located about 30 yards apart. The burrows are used year round. Burrowing owls still occur in dry prairies in central Florida, but they are now also found on heavily grazed pastures, airports, golf courses, athletic fields and in partially developed residential and industrial areas. Artificial habitats are very important for maintaining current population numbers and distribution. Statewide, the population is estimated at 3,000-10,000 pairs.