Owl Takes Cover

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) Nov. 26 2022

Much to the disappointment of a number of park visitors who had hoped to see the Burrowing Owl this morning, the bird had abandoned the perch where it sat yesterday, and where you could see at least its head from the paved path. We call that Perch B. It returned instead to Perch A, the spot on the rocky embankment hidden by a dried California Poppy bush, where you cannot see it from the path. Once again I had to set up my camera on the Open Circle Viewpoint, and stretch my telephoto lens out a long way, to see the bird, some 110 yards away.

When I first started filming, about 9:30 AM, the owl seemed undisturbed. It stood some inches away from its background on one leg and looked around in a relaxed sort of way. But then, as the video shows, something alerted the bird, although it did not seem panicked. It stepped forward a few paces and, after measuring the distance, hopped downward between two big stones and out of my sight. It remained there only a couple of minutes. Then it resurfaced to its former spot and seemingly returned to a normal posture. But then it grew frightened of something, and scrambled into the shelter of the bush and got under its overhanging branches as deep as it could. There it remained, crouching low and looking around with eyes wide open, for several minutes. Then it stood up with its head in the dried stalks, still scanning all around. Finally, it seemed to relax, drawing one leg up into its belly feathers.

My human senses could not determine the specific threat to which the owl was responding. Taking cover under the overhanging branches would help to disguise it from overhead raptors, which can be a mortal threat, but the bird did not scan the sky and no raptors could be seen anywhere nearby. One thing became clear: the owl paid close attention to what was happening to its right and behind it, where the paved perimeter trail runs. It could certainly hear what went on there, and I began to suspect that it had at least a glimpse of that area through the dense branches of the bush where it sheltered. (But scan as I might from the trail later, I could not detect the owl’s position.) Other than a single bark from a dog, which was on leash, there were no apparent threats to the bird from the perimeter trail during the video footage above. But owls have much sharper eyes and ears than people, and just because we could not perceive a threat doesn’t mean there wasn’t any.

There is much that I do not understand yet about this owl. This owl shuttles between the A Perch and the B Perch. Perch A has the shelter of the poppy bush. This is where you would expect a cautious owl to stay. Perch B by contrast has no vegetation inches away. The big fennel bush at Perch B is probably six feet away from the stone where the owl perches. This perch is where you would expect an owl that is bold and unafraid to sit out in the open. Yet the same owl uses both perches, switching on a day by day schedule. This is, I’m afraid, another entry in my MATWOB file — Mysterious Are The Ways Of Birds.

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) Nov. 26 2022. Can the owl see the perimeter path through the dense bush?
Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) Nov. 26 2022. Owl taking cover under overhanging bush.

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2 thoughts on “Owl Takes Cover

  • Nice video! Burrowing owls have so much apparent gravitas and personality that their few little movements and behaviors are more entertaining than a whole slew of behaviors by other birds! (apologies to other birds!)

    Does the owl usually seem to stay all day in one perch, or does s/he ever switch mid day or a few times in a day?
    I wonder if one spot feels safer, but the other is better for foraging?

  • One more notable behavior, just before stalking out of sight behind the rock…
    At https://youtu.be/T8fGBh6sPu0?t=45 or so, the owl fluffed its lower body feathers, squatted, and defecated.
    Play the video back in slo-mo (0.25 playback speed) to see the action.

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