Athene cunicularia

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing owls are small owls with long legs that nest exclusively underground. They take over pre-existing burrows dug by other prairie species such as badgers, ground squirrels, swift foxes, coyotes, and prairie dogs. Once common on the Canadian prairie, the burrowing owl is now listed as an Endangered species in Canada under the Species at Risk Act.

The situation

Calling the prairies home

For thousands of years, burrowing owls have been a part of grassland ecosystems in Canada, but they are disappearing from the prairies. Each fall, these tiny owls make an incredible trek as they migrate from Canada to Mexico and the southern United States. Many burrowing owls don’t return from this journey, but their fate is unclear.

Why are burrowing owls threatened?

It is estimated that there are as few as 270-300 breeding owls in Canada, making the burrowing owl one of the most endangered bird species in this country’s grassland prairie. Habitat loss and fragmentation from prairie to crop conversion, fewer burrows on the prairie, low spring return rates from migration, and very few young making it to maturation are all contributing to burrowing owl declines.

Our work

The Wilder Institute and partners are committed to restoring burrowing owl numbers using a conservation technique called head-starting to improve recruitment into the Canadian population. The youngest owl from a nest, which is the least likely to survive, is brought into captivity when it would otherwise migrate south for winter. These owls are released back to the prairie the following year, giving them a head start.

Owls are released as male-female pairs into artificial nest burrows installed in the same general areas they originally inhabited. Nests from released pairs are monitored closely and once nestlings are old enough, they are trapped and banded. The bands help us identify them the following spring and tells us who has returned from a successful migration. We equip some adult owls with satellite transmitters to help us track them after release and help us learn about the challenges they face during migration and on their wintering grounds.


In 2016, we launched an innovative program together with Environment and Climate Change Canada and Alberta Environment and Protected Areas to explore whether head-starting can contribute to burrowing owl recovery in Canada. Head-starting is a conservation tool that involves taking juvenile burrowing owls from the wild to the Wilder Institute each summer and releasing them as adults the following spring. These owls would be very unlikely to survive from juvenile to adulthood if left in the wild, and our project gives them a “head start” by supporting them during this critical stage of their life. Head-started owls are released in breeding pairs and also contribute offspring to the wild population. We are proud to work together with local landowners and Canadian Forces Base Suffield to release burrowing owls in southern Alberta.

Our conservation impact

By protecting young owls during a challenging stage of life and releasing them as potential breeders onto Canadian nesting grounds the following spring, this project boosts survival rates for these owls. Ultimately, the objective is to increase the species’ population on the Canadian prairies.

Did you know?

Burrowing owls can hiss to mimic a rattlesnake and scare off predators that try to enter their burrows. They use their long legs to quickly run into their burrow to escape danger or to chase after insects on the ground.

Unlike many owls, burrowing owls are active in the day as well as at night, and can be seen on the ground around their burrows or perched nearby on fence posts or low shrubs throughout the day.


We are grateful for the collaboration and support of our partners in helping us conserve the burrowing owl on the Canadian prairie.

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