Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) and California Ground Squirrel (Otospermophilus beechei) Nov. 10 2022

The “New Owl” this morning moved tight into its sheltering bundle of dried California poppies, and stood on both legs instead of just one. Usually when the bird is relaxed it stands on one leg. No reason for the more flight-ready two-legged posture appeared to my human eyes. The appearance of a Ground Squirrel just behind and above the bird was likely not a cause. The bird had held this stance long before the squirrel showed up. The owl hardly took notice of the mammal, and only swiveled its body about a quarter of a turn when the squirrel arrived.

Owls and squirrels have been cohabiting in this space for so long they might as well be roommates. Some of the owls in the past perched next to Ground Squirrel burrows, and used them as shelter when needed. The squirrels have dozens of holes and many yards of tunnels. Lending one entrance to this bird for a few moments, or even for the season, wouldn’t be a serious inconvenience. The current owl, like several of its predecessors, perched on the rocks instead of next to a burrow entrance. The squirrels consider the rip-rap embankment as part of their habitat as well, and can often be seen scurrying for cover there, or else sunning themselves up above. There’s plenty of hideouts between the rocks for everyone.

The two species mostly ignore one another. But occasionally the squirrels get too annoying and wear out the owl’s last nerve. Then the owl hunkers low, spreads out its wings to make itself look very big, and gets a fierce expression on its face. That display generally makes the squirrel back off and give the bird space. But not always; sometimes the squirrel just walks right past, unimpressed. Have a look at previous Owl-Squirrel meetings: “Owl and Squirrel” Jan 8 2022, “Owl and Squirrel” Dec 13 2018, “Owl v. Squirrels” Feb 16 2020, “Owl in Action” Nov 21 2020, “Owl :>) Squirrel” Mar 2 2020, and the best collection of owl-squirrel encounters in “The Owls Came Back: The Movie” Aug 19 2019.

Although these owls are raptors, their main diet is bugs: caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers and the like. They can take small mammals like field mice and voles. The Ground Squirrels are much too big for them. These birds may seem substantial, but that rounded shape is mostly feathers. A Burrowing Owl typically weighs between 150-170 grams (5-6 oz), with the biggest attaining 230 g (8 oz). The smallest Ground Squirrel weighs in at 280 g (9 oz), and the bigger ones can hit 738 g (1.6 lbs). Burrowing Owls on the average weigh less than common pigeons. Given these size ratios, the Ground Squirrels are not afraid of the Burrowing Owls and the owls seem to have no illusions about enjoying a squirrel dinner. And the owls don’t worry about becoming a squirrel meal. The squirrels are almost exclusively vegetarian. So they get along.

Burrowing Owl squeezed tight into vegetation, and perched on both legs. Nov. 10 2022

They can weigh from 280 to 738 g (9.9 to 26.0 oz)

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