Burrowing Owls are Summer's Entertainers
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
The Texas Panhandle was one continuous prairie dog town once upon a time. Observers in the 1870's commented on the endless burrows and that every prairie dog town had an "owlish sentinel". One hundred fifty years later, there are fewer prairie dog towns, but during a hot Texas Panhandle summer, you can still count on each of them being guarded by Burrowing Owls.
Burrowing Owls are small--only about 9" high, and about a third of the bird appears to just be bony (and dirty) legs.
But when they fly, Burrowing Owls spread out impressive, thick brown wings dotted with white.
Burrowing Owls attract a lot of attention because they are the only owls that are active during the day. They busily hunt small rodents, lizards and large bugs in the early mornings and evening hours.
One day in June 2021, I watched an owl with a much bigger meal than the usual dung beetle: a large lizard. The owl resented me eyeing its dinner, so it flew off with the poor lizard dangling from one talon.
Burrowing Owls are curious about people and frequently survey their domain, usually by moving only their heads. This makes for some great photos and lots of entertainment for bird nerds like me.
But probably the best things about Burrowing Owls is that they produce the cutest fuzzy babies. The parents commandeer abandoned prairie dog burrows to raise their families. All About Birds says "before laying their eggs, Burrowing Owls carpet the entrances to their homes with animal dung, which attracts dung beetles and other insects that the owls then catch and eat." Home Sweet Home!
However, these little dung-covered baby birds are still adorable. I have discovered families of 4, 5 or even 6 owlets each summer. The babies spend most of their time underground until late June or early July, when the surface of the prairie dog towns in our area is suddenly alive with lots of big-eyed owlets. That's the time to grab a camera with a zoom lens and find a comfortable spot to park your car to wait for the owl antics.
If you want to find Burrowing Owls near Amarillo, drive the county roads looking for prairie dog towns. In Potter County, look on the roads around the Xcel plant, Asarco, Tyson, the prisons, the airport and at Lake McGee.
In Randall County, try the intersection of Sundown Lane and Washington, the eastern part of Greenways Park, Eastern Street just south of I-40, the roads between Loop 335 and the Claude Highway, and the southern ends of Bell, Western and Georgia streets.
I usually spot the prairie dogs much more easily than the owls. But I scan the area with my binoculars, paying particular attention to the dirt mounds that could house the small owls. Sometimes I'll just see their big, yellow eyes and the tops of their heads above the surface. But I also might see owls perched on fence posts, cholla cactus and on stick-like plants that seem to barely barely support their weight.
Most of the Burrowing Owls arrive in the Panhandle in March and will disappear from our area in the late fall. However, a few owls are spotted almost every winter, looking cold and forlorn, seemingly just waiting for the rest of their buddies to reappear in the spring.