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Short-eared Owl

Asio flammeus ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

This open-country hunter is one of the world's most widely distributed owls, and among the most frequently seen in daylight. Don't look too eagerly for the ear tufts, which are so short they're often invisible. More conspicuous features are its black-rimmed yellow eyes staring out from a pale facial disk. These birds course silently over grasslands on broad, rounded wings, especially at dawn and dusk. They use acute hearing to hunt small mammals and birds.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
13.4–16.9 in
34–43 cm
Wingspan
33.5–40.6 in
85–103 cm
Weight
7.3–16.8 oz
206–475 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Rock Pigeon; smaller than a Great Horned Owl.
Other Names
  • Hibou des Marias (French)
  • Lechuza de la penas (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Short-eared Owl is one of the few species that seems to have benefited from strip-mining. It nests on reclaimed and replanted mines south of its normal breeding range.
  • As suggested by their wide global distribution, Short-eared Owls can travel long distances over vast expanses of ocean. Witnesses have reported seeing these owls descending on ships hundreds of miles from land.
  • Hawai'I's only native owl, the pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis), is a Short-eared Owl subspecies found on all the chain's major islands. Pueos may have descended from Alaska forebears, taking hold in the islands after the first arriving Polynesians brought owl food in the form of the Pacific rat.
  • Normally reluctant to leave the nest, female Short-eared Owls that are forced to flush often defecate on their eggs. The resulting putrid smell may repel predators or mask the scent of the nest.
  • The oldest Short-eared Owl on record was at least 4 years, 4 months old when it was shot in California in 1970, wearing a band that had been applied in British Columbia in 1966.

Habitat


Grassland

Short-eared Owls live in large, open areas with low vegetation, including prairie and coastal grasslands, heathlands, meadows, shrubsteppe, savanna, tundra, marshes, dunes, and agricultural areas. Winter habitat is similar, but is more likely to include large open areas within woodlots, stubble fields, fresh and saltwater marshes, weedy fields, dumps, gravel pits, rock quarries, and shrub thickets. When food is plentiful, winter areas often become breeding areas.

Food


Mammals

Short-eared Owls eat mostly small mammals, especially mice and voles. These owls also eat shrews, moles, lemmings, rabbits, pocket gophers, bats, rats, weasels, and muskrats. Short-eared Owl populations tend to fluctuate in close association with the cycling populations of their mammalian prey. They also eat birds including adult and nestling terns, gulls, shorebirds, songbirds, storm-petrels, and rails. In Hawaii, the Short-eared Owl is a key predator of the endangered Hawaiian Thrush. They decapitate and eviscerate small mammals before swallowing them whole. They often take off the wings of birds before eating them.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–11 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.5–1.7 in
3.7–4.3 cm
Egg Width
1.2–1.4 in
3–3.5 cm
Incubation Period
21–37 days
Nestling Period
12–18 days
Egg Description
Cream/white, becoming darker with age from wear and stained from nest debris.
Condition at Hatching
Wet, eyes closed, with white & buff-colored natal down.
Nest Description

The Short-eared Owl is one of the few owls to construct its own nest: a bowl scraped out of the ground by the female and lined with grasses and downy feathers. The nest is sometimes built atop one from the previous year. Nests are about 10 inches across and 2 inches tall.

Nest Placement

Ground

Short-eared Owls nest on the ground amid grasses and low plants. They usually choose dry sites—often on small knolls, ridges, or hummocks—with enough vegetation to conceal the incubating female.

Behavior


Soaring

During breeding season, Short-eared Owls are active during all hours of the day and night; in winter, they favor low-light conditions. These owls forage mainly on the wing—flying low over the ground, sometimes hovering briefly heights of 6–100 feet. They are extremely maneuverable in the air, able to drop suddenly to capture prey or climb to avoid pursuers. They also soar hawklike on their long, broad wings, a flight mode they probably use for migratory travel. Breeding Short-eared Owls roost on the ground in tall grass. In winter the owls may roost in trees (especially when snowy), sometimes with other species such as Long-eared Owls. In territorial skirmishes, Short-eared Owls fly rapidly at each other, pulling up and presenting their talons at the last moment. Pairs of dueling or courting owls sometimes grapple with their talons, tumbling nearly to the ground before letting go. Short-eared Owls are loosely colonial breeders, normally seasonally monogamous. In courtship "sky dances," males perform aerial acrobatics accompanied by singing and wing-clapping. Males feed incubating and brooding females and defend nests with distraction displays and vocalizations..

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Short-eared Owl populations declined by over 3.2% per year between 1966 and 2013, resulting in a cumulative decline of 80%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 3 million, with 14% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 11% in Canada, and 3% wintering in Mexico. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Short-eared Owl is listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline on the 2014 State of the Birds Report. Habitat loss from agriculture, livestock grazing, recreation, and development appears to be the major cause of population declines. Short-eared Owls require large uninterrupted tracts of open grasslands, and appear to be particularly sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation. Habitat restoration programs, such as the Conservation and Wetland Reserve Programs, have shown some success in restoring suitable habitat for Short-eared Owls on private land.

Credits

Range Map Help

Short-eared Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to medium-distance migrant. In North America, most birds migrate but breeding and wintering range overlap means that they can be seen year-round in a band across the middle of the continent.

Find This Bird

Unless you live in the northern U.S. or Canada, you'll want to look for Short-eared Owls during winter. Look for open fields, grasslands, or airports and visit near dawn or dusk for your best chance of finding them. They may be sitting directly on the ground or flying low and erratically as they hunt. They often cover great distances in a crisscrossing or roughly circular route, so if one flies out of sight be patient—it may come back for a return visit.

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