Athene cunicularia hypugea

Status:  Common regular spring and fall migrant and breeder west and central, rare casual east. Rare casual winter visitor central and west.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM11338, 24 Mar 1895 Beatrice, Gage Co.

Taxonomy:  There are 15-18 subspecies recognized (Poulin et al 2020, Gill and Donsker 2017), all but two occurring in the West Indies and South America, the others in North America: floridana of Florida, and hypugea of western North America. Nebraska birds are hypugea.

Spring:  Mar 30, 31, 31 <<<>>> summer

An earlier date is 14 Mar 2016 Hultine WPA, Clay Co.

Arrival is generally in early Apr.

  • High counts: 41 in southwest Scotts Bluff Co 19 Apr 1999, 27 near Lyman, Scotts Bluff Co 27 Apr 1997, and 23 at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 27 Apr 2015.

Summer: This species was formerly a common breeder throughout the state, associated with prairie dog (Cynomys spp.) colonies (Bruner et al 1904, Thiele et al 2021), but is now essentially absent from the settled and farmed eastern third (Ducey 1988).  Despite a reduction in range, BBS trend analysis shows relatively stable abundance, increasing annually 0.85% (95% C.I.; -2.95, 3.93) during the period 1966-2015 (Sauer et al 2017).

In the northeast, recent reports of nesting are few; a recent survey (Thiele et al 2021) found the first two breeding records for Boyd Co, three fledglings in a prairie dog colony on 21 Jul, and an adult owl delivering a prey item to a presumed nest burrow in another prairie dog colony also 21 Jul, and in Keya Paha Co, 11 fledglings and three adults were observed in a prairie dog colony 27 July. In the same survey, in northeastern Cherry Co, two adjacent prairie dog colonies were occupied by burrowing owls, and breeding was confirmed at one of these locations.

Recent breeding reports elsewhere are of a pair that raised at least one young bird in 2000 in Antelope Co, and an adult and a juvenile were photographed in northeast Dixon Co 1 Jul 2006.

There are several breeding season sightings without breeding evidence or of single birds in Polk Co 17 Apr 1985, 15 May 1990, and 16 May 1991, Merrick Co 17 May 1986, Sherman Co 24 Apr 2021, Boyd Co 20 May 2006 and 28 May 2021, Dakota Co 30 May-4 Jun 1965 (Wagner 1966), and in Stanton Co 3 Aug 1989. The study by Thiele et al (2021) also found Burrowing Owls at five additional Keya Paha Co locations.

In the southeast, Fiala (1970) noted that it no longer occurred in Gage Co. In the eastern Rainwater Basin, it was apparently extirpated by the early 2000s (Jorgensen (2012); it had persisted at the few remaining prairie dog towns as far east as Fillmore and Clay Cos.  Since the early 2000s, reports have increased, primarily associated with small prairie dog colonies at WPAs; two were at a badger hole near Fairmont, Fillmore Co 11 Jun 2005, one was at a prairie dog town near Grafton, Fillmore Co 3 Jun 2006, 1-2 were seen at an eradicated prairie-dog town in Clay Co from 9 Apr 2007 with two returning in 2008, one was at Harvard WPA, Clay Co 9 Apr 2008, and two were at Massie WPA, Clay Co 27 Jun 2011. Beginning in 2008 a persistent site has been at Hultine WPA, where there were several sightings 2008 and 2009; successful breeding occurred in 2010, when a half-grown fledgling was seen 5 Jul. Breeding has continued at this location since, with best count the 17 adults and juveniles 10 Jul 2016. At a prairie dog town along Cameron Road, Hall Co, 1-2 were present 29 Apr through at least 31 May 2021.

It is most numerous in the Panhandle, where prairie dog towns are still commonplace and widely distributed.  A study in Sioux, Box Butte, Scotts Bluff, Morrill, and Banner Cos in 1989 (Desmond and Savidge 1990) comparing fledging success of colony nesters (in occupied prairie dog towns), solitary nesters (badger holes), and nesters in abandoned prairie dog towns, showed that of 85 nests, success was 3.12 (N=60), 5.0 (N=16), and 0.88 (N=9) fledged young per nest respectively. The Scottsbluff Landfill continues to host a large population; 30, including 21 young, were counted there 13 Jul 2008.

  • Breeding Phenology:
    Courtship: 12 May
    Nestlings: 22 Jun- 16 Sep (still associated with a burrow)
    Fledglings: 22 May-27 Jul (not associated with a burrow)
  • High counts:  44+ in northeast Lincoln Co 26 Jun 2006, 30+ near Buffalo Creek WMA, Banner Co 22 Jul and 2 Aug 2003, and 30 (75% juveniles) at the Scottsbluff Landfill 3 Aug 2008.

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Oct 18, 19, 20

Later dates are 23-27 Oct 1984 Wayne Co, 2 Nov 2019 Prairie Dog WMA, Kearney Co, 7 Nov 1980 Sioux Co, 9 Nov 1965 Adams Co, 23 Nov-9 Dec 1989 Hall Co.

Family groups begin to disperse away from nest sites by late Jul; a group of five appeared near Kearney, Buffalo Co 27 Jul 2006 and left a few days later, three were in Knox Co 27-29 Jul 2009 unassociated with any apparent breeding site, and three adults with five juveniles were in Keya Paha Co 8 Sep 2008.

Departure is generally completed by mid-Oct.

Most of the few recent reports from the east are of fall migrants: 17 Sep 2016 photographed Burt Co, 24 Sep 2012 Spring Creek Prairie, Lancaster Co, 25 Sep 1990 Douglas Co, 28 Sep 1985 Polk Co, 29 Sep 1986 Douglas Co, 18 Oct 1975 Douglas Co, and 23-27 Oct 1984 Wayne Co.

  • High counts: 22 in McPherson Co 7 Sep 2000, “20 or more” in Cherry Co 16 Sep 1997, 11 in Scotts Bluff Co 4 Sep 1999, and 11 near Parks, Dundy Co 18 Sep 2017.

Winter: Rapp et al (1958) noted that “a few winter in mild winters,” and Bent (1938) stated that a few remain on the northerly breeding grounds through winter. Curiously, however, there are several Jan and Feb reports for Nebraska, but virtually none for Dec, which may indicate that rather than overwintering, a few individuals begin northward movement very early in winter or early spring.

There are no midwinter reports since 1985, when one was in Scotts Bluff Co 3 Feb. Six, presumably a family group, were reported on the Lincoln, Lancaster Co CBC 26 Dec 1915 at a time when the species occurred in good numbers further in the east.


CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)
WPA: Waterfowl Production Area (Federal)


Photograph (top) of Burrowing Owls in western Nebraska 18 Sep 2010 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

Bent, A.C. 1938. Life histories of North American birds of prey. Part Two. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 170. Dover Publications Reprint 1961, New York, New York, USA.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Desmond, M., and J. Savidge. 1990. Solitary vs. gregarious nesting in Burrowing Owls. NBR 58: 77.

Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Fiala, K.L. 1970. The birds of Gage County, Nebraska. NBR 38: 43-72.

Gill, F., and D. Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3), accessed 30 January 2018.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Poulin, R.G., L.D. Todd, E.A. Haug, B.A. Millsap, and M.S. Martell. 2020. Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.burowl.01.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds.  Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union. Crete, NE.

Thiele, J., M. Brogie, J. Corman, S. Nevison, R. Olson, K, Schumacher, and C. Wessel. 2021. 2020 Keya Paha River Watershed Burrowing Owl Surveys, Including Records of Other At-risk Species – Final Report. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Norfolk, Nebraska, USA.

Wagner, H.J. 1966. Dakota County, May 30 through June 4, 1965. NBR 24: 17.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2021. Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), Version 1.0. In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 2 Jun 2021