Owls are a favorite family of birds for many people, whether they are birders or not. Although owls are rather common, their nocturnal habits make them hard to see. Not so with Burrowing Owls (athene cunicularia), which are often active and thus visible in daylight.
The Burrowing Owl is a medium sized owl, standing about eight inches tall, with a wingspan of 22 inches. This is very close to the size of the various screech owls, although the Burrowing Owl has always looked bigger to me when seen in the open. The Burrowing Owl is larger than Elf and Pygmy Owls, but smaller than the Barn, Spotted, and Great Horned Owls that can be found in Arizona.
The Burrowing Owl, like most of its close relatives, is cryptically colored with brown markings to make in blend in with its environment. A white throat and eyebrow accent the yellow eyes. There are no "ear tufts" as on the Screech, Great Horned, Long Eared and Short Eared Owls; instead the Burrowing Owl has a rounded head shape.
As the name implies, Burrowing Owls nest under ground. They are capable of digging their own burrows, but prefer to take over a ready-made hole, such as a prairie dog or ground squirrel has dug. So, the best places to look for Burrowing Owls are where these ground dwelling mammals can be found.
Burrowing Owls are an open country bird, and spend much time outside the burrow. They can often be seen sitting on the small mound of dirt beside their burrow, or on a post of low shrub nearby. They are distributed throughout much of the western United States throughout the plains region, and can be found in the eastern United States in southern Florida. They seem to especially like the edges of ditches along roads in agricultural areas.
This choice of habitat leads to concern for the stability of Burrowing Owl populations in areas of suburban sprawl. In the Phoenix area, conversion of agricultural fields into housing developments usually displaces any Burrowing Owls nesting there.
Burrowing Owls are widely distributed in southern Arizona. Look for them along roadsides between Gila Bend and Painted Rock Dam west of Phoenix, along Sunland Gin Road south of Casa Grande, along Maricopa Road south of the casino, along roads crossing the Gila River Indian Reservation, and even on the campus of Scottsdale Community College.