Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) routinely collect and scatter dry manure of mammals around their nesting burrows. Recent studies have suggested this behavior attracts insect prey to the nesting burrow. However, some Burrowing Owls do not use manure, but instead, collect and scatter other materials (e.g., grass, moss, paper, plastic) around their nesting burrow in a similar fashion. Use of these materials seemingly contradicts the prey-attraction hypothesis. Using observational and experimental methods, we tested whether Burrowing Owls preferred manure to other materials commonly found at nesting burrows in eastern Washington. We found a wide variety of materials at nests, but grass and manure were the most common materials. The amount of manure present at nests was negatively correlated with the amount of other materials, and with the distance to the nearest source of manure. Burrowing Owls showed no preference between horse manure and grass divots at experimental supply stations that we placed near nesting burrows. They did prefer these two materials to carpet pieces and aluminum foil (both materials that are often found at Burrowing Owl nests). Our results did not support the premise that Burrowing Owls specifically seek out manure when lining their nesting burrows. The unusual behavior of collecting and scattering mammal manure and other debris at Burrowing Owl nests may serve functions other than (or in addition to) prey attraction and alternative hypotheses need further testing before the function of this behavior is certain.
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Vol. 45 • No. 3