- 13.4–16.9 in
- 33.5–40.6 in
- 7.3–16.8 oz
- Larger than a Rock Pigeon; smaller than a Great Horned Owl.
- Hibou des Marias (French)
- Lechuza de la penas (Spanish)
- 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.
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.
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.
- Clutch Size
- 1–11 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1-2 broods
- Egg Length
- 1.5–1.7 in
- Egg Width
- 1.2–1.4 in
- 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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
- Wiggins, D. A., D. W. Holt and S. M. Leasure. 2006. Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 061 (A. Poole, Ed.), Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
- Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
- Hawaii’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. 2005. Pueo or Hawaiian Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus sandwichensis.
- North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2014. State of the Birds 2014 Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, DC.
- Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- Sibley, D.A. 2014. The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2015. Longevity records of North American Birds.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2013. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2013 analysis.
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.