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Short-eared Owl Life History


GrasslandsShort-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.Back to top


MammalsShort-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. Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundShort-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.

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.

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 and buff-colored natal down.
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Aerial Dive (ground/talons)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..Back to top


Common Bird in Steep Decline

Short-eared Owl populations are difficult to estimate with certainty. There have been declines, particularly in Canada, but overall, populations appear to have been stable between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.3 million and rates the species 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. However, Short-eared Owl is listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline, for species that are still too numerous or widely distributed to warrant Watch List status but have been experiencing troubling long-term declines. Short-eared Owls require large uninterrupted tracts of open grasslands and appear to be particularly sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation from agriculture, livestock grazing, recreation, and development. 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.

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