Friday, 21 May 2010

Owls on the beach

Although the post of most intelligent animal is disputed, mythology agrees on the wisest, the owl. The Greek goddess of wisdom, Athene, was helped in her work by an owl, as was her Roman cousin Minerva, and they have been held as the sagest of creatures ever since.

The European image of an owl is a silent shadow, swooping through a dark forest, but not all owls are like that. There is one found throughout South and North America that hunts during the day, prefers open ground, and lives in burrows, the aptly named, Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia, from Athene and the latin for "mining").

Because they are tolerant of man, and hunt in daylight, Burrowing owls are fairly easy to see. They will even nest on beaches or derelict lots nears houses, using holes abandoned by mammals, or if the soil is loose or sandy, making their own. Then one, usually the male, will sit on the nearest tree or fencepost and keep watch.

Burrowing owls have quite a few enemies, and so the deeper the hole, the better. The chicks are raised there, but it's used through the whole year as a roost and shelter. In fact outside the breeding season nearly 40% of the time can be spent underground. When the chicks appear though it's "all hands to the pumps" and one or other parent will be hunting 24 hours a day.

They're pretty omnivorous, eating almost anything that moves including mice, beetles and even scorpions, and unusually for owls they'll also eat seeds and nuts. The preferred method is to sit on a post and ambush anything they see, but if times are hard, or there are chicks to feed, the males can range over several kilometres looking for food.

Burrowing owls are quite visually orientated, and if they do hunt at night they're more active when there is a full moon. They prefer clear open ground where they can see danger, or food, approaching. This preference has one extra advantage in the modern world, deforested land is ideal habitat for them ,and their numbers are actually increasing.

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