What Disturbs a Burrowing Owl?

Earlier this week I had the good fortune to be able to record a full half hour video of a Burrowing Owl.   I set up my camera on a tripod in a spot where I had an angled view free of intervening vegetation.  I started the video and let it run.  While it ran, I sat on a bench a short distance away.  There I could watch the camera and be quiet.  I got up once and checked on the camera, then returned to the bench.

As the recording ran, a number of events happened.  Planes flew overhead.  Trains blew their horns and rumbled.  Birds winged.  Runners crunched and stomped.  People walked and talked.  Drones whined.  An off-leash dog padded by, sniffing the bushes; its mistress following behind.  The camera recorded each event and the bird’s reaction to it.

Generally, the bird reacted to each of the events at most by opening its eyes and swiveling its head, nothing more.  There is one exception.  When the off-leash dog passed, the bird expressed major alarm.  Its eyes opened wide, it put down both feet, it stretched as high as it was able, and looked ready to open its wings and fly away.  If birds have a fight-or-flight reaction, this was it.  After the dog passed, it took the bird a full two minutes to settle down to its previous low, comfortable squat, and its head movements looked more nervous thereafter until the end of the video.

Planes and trains, by contrast, got little reaction from the bird.  The first plane on the video merited a brief glance to the sky; later planes were ignored.  Train whistles, even very loud ones, caused little movement; the owl even yawned during one train horn blast.  The owl’s head followed other birds flying overhead.  Three drone passes occur on the video.  They were not directly overhead, but certainly audible.  The owl ignored them.   A number of runners passed, some crunching on the gravel, some stomping on the asphalt.  The bird paid them no attention.  Me checking the camera while my cellphone went “bing” got no response.  Two sets of people walked by in animated conversation.  The owl closed its eyes, not interested.  But the dog — that provoked panic.  The video speaks for itself.  Check it out at 4:30.

Cut to the chase?  Here’s the 40-second excerpt showing only the owl’s reaction to the dog.  You can hear the dog panting at the start.

The general level of background noise at this time — between 9 and 9:30 a.m. on a Monday — certainly must have made an impression on a creature that probably came from rural Idaho and other points north.  No doubt our urban din impacted the bird’s baseline stress levels.   Yet its settled composure, its tenacious occupancy of the same spot for at least 48 hours, suggest that the bird is able to process and perhaps tune out the environmental rumble.  Trains and planes don’t faze it.  It showed little concern for humans stomping or yakking very nearby.  But a loose dog is a mortal threat and very nearly triggered this bird to take wing.


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