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Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5150

Publications Warehouse SIR 2007-5150

In cooperation with Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi

Winter Ecology of the Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) in Southern Texas 1999–2004

By Marc C. Woodin, Mary K. Skoruppa, and Graham C. Hickman

SIR 2007-5150


This study examines the winter ecology of the western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) in five Texas counties surrounding Corpus Christi, in southern Texas. There is a substantial gap in information on the owl’s life cycle during migration and non-breeding winter months; almost all previous research on western burrowing owls has been conducted during the breeding season. The western burrowing owl currently is federally threatened in Mexico, federally endangered in Canada, and in the United States is considered a National Bird of Conservation Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Topics investigated included status, effectiveness of public outreach, roost sites and use of culverts and artificial burrows, roost site fidelity, diet, contaminant burdens, body mass, and ectoparasites.

Early ornithological reports and a museum egg set revealed that burrowing owls once bred in southern Texas and were common in winter; however, since the 1950’s they have been reported in relatively low numbers and only during winter. In this study, public outreach increased western burrowing owl detections by 68 percent. Owls selected winter roost sites with small-diameter openings, including culverts less than or equal to 16 centimeters and artificial burrows of 15 centimeters, probably because the small diameters deterred mammalian predators. Owls showed strong roost site fidelity; 15 banded birds stayed at the same roost sites within a winter, and 8 returned to the same site the following winter. The winter diet was over 90 percent insects, with crickets the primary prey. Analyses of invertebrate prey and regurgitated pellets showed that residues of all but 3 of 28 carbamate and organophosphate pesticides were detected at least once, but all were below known lethal concentrations. Mean body mass of western burrowing owls was 168 grams and was highest in midwinter. Feather lice were detected in low numbers on a few owls, but no fleas or other ectoparasites were found.

Posted November 2007

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