Yes, to answer the question, owls do get in the dirt. Imagine my surprise as a young Marine many years ago slamming on the truck brakes as I watched what I believed to be an owl, crawl into a burrow of a canal bank near Mexico!
Burrowing owls are commonly seen in California, Arizona, and other western states. I have heard that Cape Coral, Florida has a small population of burrowing owls as well. These owls are one of the smaller owls we have in North America and grow to ten inches tall with long legs.
The owls are fun to watch even if you are not a bird enthusiast. They have a peculiar habit of swiveling their heads nearly all the way around and they do a dance. While I was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service I had the pleasure of being asked about the “little brown dirt birds” by an eighty plus-year-old man wearing Bermuda shorts, a white t-shirt, white socks, and brown sandals. His legs had not seen the sun in decades.
When I asked which particular little brown birds he was trying to find, he stunned me with an exact mimic of the dance they do. The burrowing owls bob up and down two or three times, then repeat to the left and the right and stop and sometimes start it all over again. The older gentleman had it down pat. His wife nodded enthusiastically as he did the dance for me.
Burrowing owls love to find loose soil, abandoned burrows, old holes, even storm drains in areas where it does not rain much (think the Sonoran Desert), and culverts or pipes of other designations to live in and raise their families in.
While living in Arizona and photographing them, I drove up and down the farm fields near earth berms and canal banks looking for them. They liked to come out early and late and feed but they can be seen in the middle of the day too. They just tend to be closer to their burrows at lower light.
They enjoy catching and dining on insects, rodents and sometimes small reptiles. They can catch their meal by running it down, diving from the air to catch it on the ground or snagging it while flying.
Most burrowing owls breed from spring through the summer. If you see a hole with feathers or sticks or even trash at the entrance, you have likely found an active nest. Most of the time the male does the bulk of the hunting while the female tends to the nest.
The chicks will sometimes crawl to the opening of the burrow when they are nearly two weeks old. They venture further and further from the nest as they grow. However, don’t approach too close as the parents will get upset and no one wants momma upset about her babies!
Where you find one burrowing owl you will tend to find others nearby. They are social birds and seemingly unafraid of humans within reason. My mother in law had one that perched on her back fence each morning while she watered her flowers and sat and drank her coffee.
If you ever get the chance to drive down a farm road in southern California, Arizona or Nevada and see a dirt berm or irrigation ditch or canal bank, slow down and watch for these owls. Keep your camera handy. If you can get close enough, stay in the vehicle which will let the owl feel safer. Video of these owls dancing is worth your time and will have everyone laughing.