September 2, 2009
For the first time in 30 years, a couple of baby burrowing owls were born at the National Zoo. On August 2, zoo staffers welcomed two wide-eyed chicks born to a 5-year-old male and a 4-year-old female who have lived at the Zoo for three years.
Burrowing owls, so named for their habit of living in underground burrows, are native to North and South America. Zuni Indians, native to western New Mexico, called the owls the “priest of the prairie dogs” because they would take over abandoned prairie dog burrows. They are one of the smallest owl species in North America at 10 inches in length for the average adult. Much of the wild population is migratory, though not much is known about their exact routes. These tiny guys cover the land from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean and from the Canadian prairies into South America as well as Florida and the Caribbean islands. Burrowing owls mainly eat large insects, small rodents and frogs.
When they’re born, the young owls are completely helpless, their eyes are closed and they don’t venture out of the burrow until they’re two weeks old when they can regulate their body temperature. By three weeks, the chicks can be seen joyfully jumping and flapping their wings. At four weeks, they can fly short distances.
The Zoo’s chicks, now just over four weeks old, are currently with their parents in the Zoo’s bird house, which is covered so that the birds can swoop and fly about. Visitors can view the new baby owls there during regular hours. Their habitat, however, is covered with a semi-transparent filter paper to afford the youngsters a little privacy and to give them time to acclimate to their new Zoo home. The paper will slowly be removed as the chicks become more comfortable with their surroundings. The babies currently spend most of their time underground in burrows, but lucky visitors will catch a glimpse of their downy feathers.
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