Burrowing Owls

What You Need


Burrowing Owls


To develop student understandings of how humans can affect or change ecosystems for other species, specifically the Burrowing Owl.


Students at this age understand that organisms sharing an ecosystem depend upon each other to survive. They also begin to realize human beings have many choices to make as each ecosystem is changed due to the increase of human population in any given area. When changing a community to include shopping malls, parking spaces, and roads, people also change the dynamics of the existing ecosystem. Certain species are unable to adapt quickly enough and become threatened or endangered. Such is the case of the Burrowing Owl in California.

This lesson is based on students' previous knowledge that many animals share an ecosystem and depend upon each other to survive. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 117.) They also should understand that species change over time for many different reasons; some related to the impact of human beings sharing the same space.

This lesson uses the example of the Burrowing Owl to illustrate how human activities can control the fate of a species. In addition to exploring the negative impact community development has had on the owl's habitat, students will read about proactive steps people have taken to reverse this destruction. In particular, they will read about a small group of concerned citizens at Mission College in Santa Clara, CA, who got involved and created a plan of action to protect the Burrowing Owls on campus.


If a presentation station is available, display a picture of a Burrowing Owl on the screen. If one is not available, divide the class into small groups and give each group a print out of the picture. Tell students to look closely at the picture. When students have had time to examine the picture, lead a class discussion of these questions:

  • What are the physical features of a Burrowing Owl?
  • What do you think this particular owl eats?
  • Do you think it might be prey to another animal?
  • What do you think is the natural habitat of a Burrowing Owl?


After the class has discussed the picture, refer them to the Burrowing Owls student esheet, which will provide them with more information about the owls.

After students have read more about Burrowing Owls, tell them that they will investigate efforts to preserve a place for Burrowing Owls in a California community while planning for growth and development. Pass out copies of the City Planning for Owls article and have students work in small groups to complete these activities.

Option #1
Ask each student to read the article and use the Post-it® notes as they read to note important facts in each paragraph. Students will use these notes to write a summary paragraph. This is an excellent method of taking notes. Students can easily sort the small notes on a paper or open space, evaluate and review the notes as they sort, and look for main ideas and supporting facts. Students will independently draft a summary of the article.

Note: A younger audience or lower-level readers might follow option #2.

Option #2
Divide the class into small groups of 4-6 students. Distribute one copy of the article, City Planning for Owls, to each student. Due to the complexity and length of the article, break the article into sections according to topic:

  • Introduction to problem, paragraphs 1-4
  • Burrowing Owl species information, paragraphs 5-8
  • Current status of the Burrowing Owl, paragraphs 9-12
  • Survival depends on human impact, paragraphs 13-17
  • Example of human impact, paragraphs 18-21
  • Conclusion and summary, paragraphs 22-25.

Assign one section of the article to each group. Ask students to read the assigned section. Encourage students to write a short note for each paragraph using the Post-it® notes. (Stress the word NOTE to discourage writing a sentence or paragraph on the sticky note.) This will help them to comprehend and focus.

When each student has completed the reading, ask the students to transfer the notes they have written to the middle of the table. Instruct them to sort them into main ideas and supporting facts. Allow the groups a few minutes to compare their notes.

Using a large sheet of newsprint, the group can list the main idea and use bullets for supporting facts and subtopics in each section. One student from each group will summarize the findings of the group.

After all groups have reported, lead a discussion by asking these questions:

  • How did humans initially impact the Burrowing Owl community?
  • Do you think this was deliberate or inadvertent?
  • What do you think will become of the Burrowing Owls in California? Why?
  • Do you think laws created by the federal and local governments to protect animals and the environment are effective?


Using local media and conservation resources, ask students to find examples of humans impacting a regional ecosystem. Making a connection in their community will help students realize the future is in their hands. Ask students to read and learn about how development is impacting a local ecosystem.

For more examples of human impacts on ecosystems, refer students to the "Going Further" section of the esheet.

Finally, assess student understanding by asking these questions:

  • What development is taking place?
  • How is the development changing the ecosystem?
  • What organisms are impacted by the development? How are they impacted?
  • What can be done to protect the species?

Wrap up the lesson by encouraging students to share their ideas on how to protect the species facing adversity.


See Birds of Prey and Owls: Top of a Food Chain, complementary Science NetLinks lessons that target benchmarks at the 6-8 level, for additional resources you can use to extend the ideas in this lesson.

For an example of a community working to reverse the destruction of a local habitat, visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Here students can learn about current projects funded by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, volunteer information, and federal and local laws currently being reviewed. Class discussions are encouraged.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards

Tips + Modifications

  • If you're interested in pairing this lesson with some reading, Carl Hiaasen’s "Hoot" would be a great companion novel for your students.
    - Kirstin