In my bible of western American birds* the Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia is described as “uncommon and local” and found usually in open grasslands or on agricultural lands.

Well, David Allen Sibley got it bang on the money for me.

Yesterday I was driving around the bottom end of the hyper-saline Salton Sea in south-eastern California and took a small road squeezed between flooded fields that led to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge close to the Mexican border.

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I’d come across a flock of spectacularly-plumaged White-faced Ibis Plegadis chihi standing neck-deep in flooded grass on the way out and was cruising back to Highway 111 when I noticed a small bird perched on the side of the irrigation ditch that ran parallel to the roadway.

I backed up and found a few of these Burrowing Owls scurrying about in the open.

I’d seen these ineffably cute owls a few years ago in a field in Venezuala but not yet in the USA.

Unsurprisingly, Burrowing Owls feature significantly in north American First Nations culture and religion. From the page “Owl Myths & Legends” at the WildBirds site comes the following:

The Hopi identify the Burrowing owl with Masau’u, their god of the dead and the night. The same deity is also the guardian of fires and attends to all underground things. As such, he is responsible for the germination of seeds, which lends a more positive aspect to the owl.

To the Hidatsa of the Dakotas, the “big owl” (Great horned owl) was a keeper-of-game spirit, who watched over and controlled the buffalo. “Big owl” had an assistant “little owl” (Burrowing owl) to help with these essential buffalo herding duties. “Little owl” was a protective spirit for a warrior, flying above him if he went to attack an enemy.

And from the Owls in American Indian Culture page at the must-go-to-for-all-things-Owl-related The Owl Pages website come the following references to the Burrowing Owl.

The Dakota Hidatsa Indians saw the Burrowing Owl as a protective spirit for brave warriors.

The Hopis Indians see the Burrowing Owl as their god of the dead, the guardian of fires and tender of all underground things, including seed germination. Their name for the Burrowing Owl is Ko’ko, which means “Watcher of the dark” They also believed that the Great Horned Owl helped their Peaches grow.

A Zuni legend tells of how the Burrowing Owl got its speckled plumage: the Owls spilled white foam on themselves during a ceremonial dance because they were laughing at a coyote that was trying to join the dance. Zuni mothers place an Owl feather next to a baby to help it sleep.

* The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. (2003) David Allen Sibley, Knopf.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey