Short-eared Owls and Their Winter Visitation
Introduction to the Short-eared Owl and What To Look For
Most people are pretty familiar with at least some of the owls of North America, including barn owls (big, white pretty owl), barred owls (the ones that say "who cooks for you" when they hoot), great horned owls (the really big ones that make characteristics hooting), screech owls (cute little fuzzy things that sound terrifying, like whinnying horses), and of course snowy owls (made famous by Harry Potter). However, there's an owl that is just as common that few people know about, and it is currently coming down from Canada and the Arctic, visiting all of North America. It is the short-eared owl. In this post I'll tell you what to look for and where, so you can start to keep an eye out for amazingly beautiful owls, because they're actually easier to see than most other owls.
Short-eared owls have an awesome Latin name, Asio flammeus, which sounds more like a Harry Potter wand spell than a real name. Asio is the Latin term for "horned owl," (first used by Pliny the Elder in his work "Naturalis Historia") and flammeus is Greek for "flaming." I'm not certain why they use the term "flaming" because the body of the short-eared owl is brownish to tawny brown along their back and buffy white, streaked with brown, on the chest. They don't really look orange or flaming, except around sunrise or sunset, which is when they are commonly seen.Their tails and wings are strongly barred, and they are of medium build and size (13-17" long and around 1-2 lbs). They do have startlingly yellow eyes, which are off-set by black feathers that make them look like they have on super heavy eye makeup that even members of KISS would envy. And of course they have the characteristic round and flattish disk face of all owls. Their head tends to be brownish whitish to buffy colored, sometimes with whitish accents above and below the facial disc.
You may be familiar with the great horned owl, and the two tufts of feathers that stick up off their head. Well, the short-eared owl also has these, but they are much smaller, especially compared to their cousin the long eared owl, which is often found in similar areas. Unlike the great horned owl, the short-eared owl's "horns" are closer to the center of its head and farther up, near the facial disc.
The crazy thing is, those things sticking up on their heads are not ears or horns at all, they are feather tufts. An owl's ears are actually tucked behind it's facial disk on either side of its eyes (I'll do a post owl ears later because they are super interesting). The tufts of feathers on the short-eared owl's head can be used as a mood indicator, much like a cat, and are great signals to other owls and animals.
So, what's the deal with short-eared owls, why are they showing up now and what do you look for?
Short-eared owls are one of the most common owls in the world. They're found on almost all continents (sans Australia and Antarctica). Here in North America they are year round residents of the upper Midwest and Pacific Midwest. They breed in Canada and the Arctic and then jaunt down to the lower 48 for the winter. They're visiting now because, well, cold is relative and food is much easier to find.
This gets us to "What to Look For." Short-eared owls are different from most other owls, because they really like open fields, plains, marshes and grassy areas. They are the nocturnal counterpart to the marsh hawk or Northern Harrier, which you usually find hunting these areas. Short-eared owls feed on moles, voles, field birds, sparrows, ground squirrels, shore birds, and occasionally insects. Unlike other owls, the short-eared owl can hunt during the day or at night, but it's most often seen to be crepuscular (cree-pus-cue-lar) or active at dawn and dusk (this was a Jeopardy question once, keep it in your back pocket to impress friends).
The other thing that makes them different is that they fly somewhat erratically compared to other owls or birds of prey. They dash and dart about like a moth around a street lamp. I also find that they flap almost like they are arthritic old men with stiff arms. There's very little bend at their elbow joint, the motion is more from their shoulder, like an eagle's flap. Check out this video from Kathy Farrell to see what I'm talking about.
I also think that they look like feathery flying incandescent light bulbs, with a fat head and tapering, narrow body.
Short-eared owl vocalizations can range from barking to hooting. Their alarm bark and bark call in flight sounds about like a Chihuahua barking. The hooting call sounds about like a monkey going "voo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo." Check out this page from Cornell to listen to the range of calls.
Male short-eared owls also have a spectacular mating display that is reminiscent of timber doodles or wood cocks. The male owls fly straight up into the air, with exaggerated wing beats, to a height of about 500 feet. As the male descends it gives a series of hoots, and as it dives it claps its wings against its body (2-6 claps per second). It can do this several times before "approval" to mate comes from the female Here's a great description by Denver Holt, and from Brenda Timm.
Unfortunately, short-eared owls are also ground nesters. Females scrape out nests on the ground to lay eggs in. After all, it's hard to find trees on plains and fields. This has put them at the mercy of rats, dogs, skunks, coyotes, house cats, and other predators. They have a very high nest mortality rate, and recent data from the Breeding Bird Survey suggests that their populations have declined by nearly 67% between 1966 to 2010. They are considered a bird of "concern" because their populations are in steep decline. There may be different reasons for this, besides just predation, ranging from poisoning of moles and voles to loss of habitat.
Short-eared owls are one of those species of owls that is ubiquitous but that very few people know about or look out for. When you're passing a field or marsh at dusk, look for them perched on fence posts or flying low over the grasses. Look for their erratic flight patterns and stiff wing beats. You never know what you'll see if you know what to look for and keep an eye out!