© KURT LINDSAY
Short-eared Owls are one of the most widespread owl species in the world and can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. With such a vast range, why are numbers declining so rapidly? The primary cause is believed to habitat degradation, with other factors being predation by domestic dogs and cats, and possibly poisoning from today’s agricultural practices. In the wild, Short-eared Owls are also at risk for nest predation by Red Foxes and Striped Skunks.
Short-eared Owls have managed to persist despite the modern threats they face day-by-day. Both males and females practice unique forms of nest-protection. As ground nesters, these birds have no choice but to learn how to fight for their eggs and chicks. When they want to distract a threat from their nest, adults act as though they are hurt, usually with a broken wing. This would normally draw a predator to them; a hurt bird is an easy meal. Or, if the threat is a human, they might chase after the hurt bird in attempt to help it instead of investigating the nest. Either way, the eggs or chicks in the nest are left safe.
Another defense strategy takes its cues from animals like skunks. In order to keep predators away from their ground based nest, female Short-eared Owls defecate on their eggs prior to flushing (leaving) from the nest as a potential threat approaches. The feces expelled by females during these times is putrid smelling, probably to discourage the predator from disturbing the eggs.
Another type of display put on by the Short-eared Owl is for courtship. During their courtship dances, the male Short-eared Owl flies high, then dives down and claps his wings below his body. While doing this, the male hoots continually. The whole act continues until the female is ready to mate, which could take a while. Elaborate courtship displays can be observed most often in the Northwestern United States and Canada, usually at dusk in grassland habitats.
Short-eared Owls can be observed in other areas as well. One subspecies, Asio flammeus sandwichensis, can be found throughout Hawai’i! The species is traditionally known as “Pueo” to the Hawaiians, and probably originated when Alaskan Short-eared Owls migrated to the islands. These Alaskan native owls most likely enjoyed the abundance of rats in the area and didn’t care to leave. Also, the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl may have thrived in the islands with more ease than other birds; it is thought that the species has at least some avian malaria and avian pox resistance. Both of these illnesses are commonly found in Hawai’i and have harmed many avian species. Although disease is not extremely common among the Hawaiian subspecies, they are threatened by pesticide use, predation, and habitat loss and contamination. Other subspecies of Short-eared Owls can be found in places like the Galapagos Islands, Africa and Asia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Falkland Islands, and others.
© Kurt Lindsay photos
SHORT-EARED OWL FACTS:
A medium-sized owl with a large round head, very small ear tufts, yellow eyes, black beak, and long, broad wings with black patches on “wrists”
Males: buff colored chest with brown streaking; belly whitish with less streaking
Females: same as males, perhaps darker; colors resemble dried grasses and aid camouflage
Young: crown and rump are dark brown; face is darker, body less streaked
OTHER NAMES: Grass Owl
CLOSEST RELATIVE: Long-eared Owl
SHORT-EARED OWL SIZE:
Female slighter larger and heavier than male
Height: Males 37cm (14.6 in), Females 38cm (15.0 in)
Weight: Males 200-450g (7.1-15.9 oz), Females 280-500g (9.9-17.6 oz)
Wingspan Both: 106cm (41.7 in)
SHORT-EARED OWL RANGE:
Range: one of the most widespread owls in the world; can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica; breeding range in North America extends from Northern Alaska to Newfoundland and south to Southern California and Virginia
SHORT-EARED OWL HABITAT:
Open country: tundra, marshes, grasslands, savannas, moorlands
SHORT-EARED OWL DIET:
Mostly small mammals like voles, moles, mice and rabbits; sometimes bats, weasels, shrews, or birds
SHORT-EARED OWL VOICE:
Usually silent, except during winter, breeding season, or when warning intruders
Males: usually a raspy bark; sometimes a “keee-ow” to warn intruders; also a 13-16 note series of repeated “hoo”s given in flight during courtship
Females: give ‘keeow-ow” bark like male
SHORT-EARED OWL NESTING:
Nest Site: nests on the ground, often atop a mound or high area; scratches out a bowl-shaped nest, fills it with grass and feathers
Eggs: 5-6 eggs on average; sometimes up to 10
Incubation: 26-29 days
SHORT-EARED OWL HUNTING HABITS:
Usually nocturnal, sometimes crepuscular; flies low over the ground in search of prey; very agile, unusual flight
SHORT-EARED OWL CONSERVATION STATUS:
Not globally threatened; but threatened or endangered in 7 northeastern U.S. states; significant declines noted in most western states.
SHORT-EARED OWL RESEARCH:
See RESEARCH for The Owl Research Institute's study on Short-eared Owls.
ALSO OF INTEREST:
• Known to clip the wings off avian prey before consuming
• Only 21% of hunts by Short-eared Owls are successful
• Sees better in daylight than most owls
• Northern Harriers often steal food from Short-eared Owls.
• This is known as “kleptoparasitism”
• Females have been known to “cluck” like a chicken
• Has 10 subspecies
• Flight described as “moth-like”
• Some are polygamous
• Partially migratory (some migrate to lower elevations)
SHORT-EARED OWL DISTRIBUTION IN NORTH AMERCAN
Maps provided by The Birds of North America Online and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
If we have a Long-eared Owl, of course we must have a Short-eared Owl too. Though these two “tufted” owls have similar names, they are actually quite different.
In fact, the Short-eared Owl is quite different than all other owl species. First, Short-eared Owls have a flight style like no other. It’s erratic, to say the least. Often described as “moth-like”, it flaps its wings high in a slow, floppy fashion.
Secondly, they favor a different type of habitat than most other owls. While many owls seek deep, dense forests, Short-eared Owls prefer to be out in the open. They make their homes in mostly flat, treeless terrain like marshes, tundra, swamps, grasslands, or fields.
So where do they nest without trees? Short-eared Owls don’t need trees; they nests right on the ground! While most owl species are content to plop right down into an abandoned nest of a Magpie or Crow, or cozy up into an old woodpecker hole, female Short-eared Owls choose a high place or a mound and scratch out a bowl-shaped depression, filling it with grass and soft, downy feathers. Birds that nest on the ground are at high risk from predators like foxes, cats, dogs, and other wild and domestic animals.
So, save a bird! The next time you take your dog for a walk through the meadow, keep him on a leash!
© Deborah Hanson