Sunday, June 26, 2011

Prairie Dogs and Burrowing Owls

One of the many birds we missed during our western jaunt was the Burrowing Owl.  (The photo below is of an owl taken in South Dakota a few years ago.) Often finding Burrowing Owls is not difficult if you scan Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies.  We found the rodents in the Badlands National Park but came up empty in the owl department.

Prairie dogs are extremely susceptible to plague. Plague, of course, can be transmitted to people who come in contact with prairie dog fleas.  So rolling around in prairie dog towns is not advised, especially if you do not often bathe.

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs are despised by many ranchers who go to great lengths to eradicate them. Ranchers could control prairie dogs by keeping their range-land in excellent condition, since the rodents prefer poor quality range-land.  In any case, as populations declined, the Fish and Wildlife Service created a political maelstrom by suggesting putting prairie dogs on the Endangered Species Act Candidate Species List.  The agency capitulated in August 2004.

Burrowing Owls nest and roost in empty prairie dog burrows.  Zuni Indians called this owl the “priest of the prairie dogs."  (This quote and much of the owl data are from Haug et al. 1993.) Burrowing Owls are out in both daylight and during the night.  Fortunately for the owls, they are not restricted to prairie dog burrows. Also utilized are burrows of ground squirrels, badgers, marmots, skunks, armadillos, kangaroo rats, and tortoises. They rarely dig their own burrows. Burrowing Owls have an interesting distribution--western North America south through Mexico and Central America, but also Florida, the Bahamas, western Cuba, and Hispaniola.  Isolated populations also occur in South America. Burrowing Owl populations are declining across most of its range. Being hit by cars is the major cause of mortality because the owls often feed on roads at night.

1 comment:

  1. I was at Grasslands (Canadian national park) last weekend and saw many black-tailed prairie dogs -- and sign about burrowing owls, but the birds themselves were in hiding. I like your picture of the prairie dog!