Great Plains Natural Science Society


The Prairie Naturalist

Date of this Version


Document Type



The Prairie Naturalist 45: 60–64; 2013


Published by the Great Plains Natural Science Society. Used by permission.


Western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) populations have declined across much of western North America, particularly at the northern and eastern edges of the species’ breeding range (Martell et al. 2001, Murphy et al. 2001, Shyry et al. 2001, Skeel et al. 2001, Klute et al. 2003). In South Dakota, the burrowing owl is a summer resident that historically was relatively common throughout the state, but its range has decreased in recent decades, especially in the eastern half of the state (Whitney et al. 1978, South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union [SDOU] 1991, Peterson 1995). Tallman et al. (2002) described the species as uncommon to locally common in western South Dakota, uncommon in the north-central part of the state, and casual (i.e., not within the species’ normal range, but with 3–10 records in the past 10 years) elsewhere in the eastern half. The burrowing owl is a Species of Great- est Conservation Need (South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks [SDGFP] 2006) and a Level I Priority Species in South Dakota (Bakker 2005).

Burrowing owls in South Dakota are strongly associated with colonies of semifossorial mammals, particularly black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus; hereafter prairie dogs) in the west and Richardson’s ground squirrels (Sper- mophilus richardsonii; hereafter ground squirrels) in the east (Whitney et al. 1978, SDOU 1991, Peterson 1995, Tallman et al. 2002). Both of these species are commonly regarded as agricultural pests, and colonies are sometimes poisoned by farmers and ranchers (Matschke et al. 1982, Hoogland 2006). Localized extirpations of colonial burrowing mammals are frequently followed by declines in burrowing owl popula- tions (Desmond et al. 2000, Holroyd et al. 2001, Klute et al. 2003, Poulin et al. 2011). Most prairie dog colonies in South Dakota are found in counties west of the Missouri River or bordering the river on the east (Kempema et al. 2009). Thiele (2012) documented widespread occurrence of burrowing owls nesting in prairie dog colonies in western counties; however, a small number of prairie dog and ground squirrel colonies do exist in eastern South Dakota. Burrowing owls also are known to utilize burrows created by other mammals, such as marmots (Marmota spp.), American badgers (Taxidea taxus), coyotes (Canis latrans), and foxes (Vulpes spp.), when otherwise suitable habitat (e.g., level to gently sloping grassland with few trees) is present (Johnsgard 2002, Dechant et al. 2003, Poulin et al. 2011).