Short-eared Owls are one of the world’s most widespread owl species – right up there with the Barn Owl! They are also the most likely owl to be seen in the daytime, besides fully diurnal species like the Burrowing Owl. Short-eared Owls are a little pickier when it comes to habitat, though, so you have to be in the right place to see one. Many populations are also migratory, so it will have to be at the right time as well.
I was lucky enough to witness a whole flock of Short-eared Owls while camping in the remote open country of eastern Oregon in the fall. They flew low over a large meadow at dusk, crisscrossing back and forth. Their pale faces and wide eyes appearing mere feet above me reminded me of cartoon ghosts.
To observe a Short-eared Owl, you just have to know where and when to look. Keep reading to learn how to identify, locate, and protect this unique crepuscular owl.
Short-eared Owls are members of the order Strigiformes, which contains all of the world’s owl species in its two families: Tytonidae and Strigidae. Short-eared Owls are one of 230 species in the family Strigidae, which includes 24 genera of “typical owls” or “true owls.”
The Short-eared Owl is one of nine species in the genus Asio. Owls of the genus Asio are known as “eared owls.” All Asio owls have ear tufts, but they vary considerably in size from species to species. They are medium-sized owls with slight builds, round facial disks, and relatively long wings compared to their bodies. Asio owls are found throughout the world but not in Australia.
The specific epithet of the Short-eared Owl’s Latin name, flammeus, means “flame-like” and refers to the flame-shaped streaks and other markings found on the owl’s plumage. The Short-eared Owl was first described by the Lutheran bishop Erik Pontoppidan in 1763.
Taxonomy At a Glance
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Strigiformes
- Family: Strigidae
- Genus: Asio
- Species: Asio flammeus
How to Identify the Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owls are aptly named as their ear tufts are very short and often not visible at all. If you see a medium-sized pale-colored owl flying in the daytime, it is most likely a Short-eared Owl.
Adult Short-eared Owls are medium-sized but slender birds with large round heads, short wedge-shaped tails, and long rounded wings. When perched, they stand 13 to 17 inches tall.
As their name suggests, they have very short ear tufts that are set close together and project straight up out of the tops of their heads. The ear tufts are often so small they are hard to see, but the owls may raise them when excited or agitated.
Short-eared Owls have round pale-colored facial disks bordered by a white rim with small black spots. Their eyes are bright yellow and are smaller than the eyes of other owls, owing to their greater reliance on hearing and less nocturnal lifestyles. They have horizontal triangle-shaped black markings around their eyes that give the impression that they are wearing heavy mascara and eyeliner. They also have white “eyebrows.” Their bills are grayish-black and surrounded by white bristles at the base.
Like most owls, their plumage is cryptically colored. On their backs and the crowns of their heads, they are darker-colored, with shades of rust, tan, yellow, and brown punctuated by large black spots. The vertical streaks on their ruff are flame-like in shape and are often surrounded by rusty-hued patches, adding to their fiery appearance. Their underparts are predominantly pale – from cream to sand-colored to buffy – with heavy vertical streaking on their upper chests and less or no streaking on their bellies. Their legs and toes are covered in short cream-colored feathers and end in gray talons.
Short-eared Owls fly slowly with stiff, shallow wing beats and seem to float, giving them a bat-like or moth-like impression. They often glide with their wings held in a slight V-shape, wavering from side to side, and frequently hover as well. Their wings are relatively long and are rounded at the tips. When viewed from below, their wing undersides are mostly pale, with dark comma-shaped markings near the middle and two dark bands near the tips.
The females are slightly larger than the males, as is the case with most owl species. Females also have darker plumage above and buffier coloration below, with heavier markings throughout.
Newly hatched nestlings are covered in creamy-white down that is slightly darker on their backs. Older owlets have a coat of short, dense buff-colored down. Their faces and bills are black, except for their white eyebrows and yellow eyes.
Juvenile Short-eared Owls look nearly identical to adults.
There are 11 subspecies of the Short-eared Owl, many of which are confined to oceanic islands.
- Asio flammeus bogotensis is found in Columbia, northern Peru, and Ecuador. It is smaller in size and has a rustier coloration throughout its plumage.
- Asio flammeus cubensis is found in Cuba. It is smaller in size and has darker plumage on its ruff. Overall, it is buffier throughout its plumage and has finer streaking on its chest. It is very similar to A. f. domingensis and A. f. portoricensis.
- Asio flammeus domingensis (the Antillean Short-eared Owl) is found in Hispaniola and is often considered to be its own species. It looks similar to female birds of A.f. flammeus. It is smaller in size and is buffier throughout its plumage. It has a darker ruff and is darker on its back, with finer streaking on its chest and paler underparts. The markings around its face are more pronounced. It is very similar to A.f. cubensis and A.f. portoricensis.
- Asio flammeus flammeus (the Northern Short-eared Owl) is the most widespread subspecies and is common throughout the northernmost regions of the species’ range in North America, Europe, North Africa, and northern Asia. It is larger, has a more boldly streaked chest and a paler, more sparsely streaked belly, and has a large head.
- Asio flammeus galapagoensis is native to the Galápagos Islands.
- Asio flammeus pallidicaudus is native to Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname.
- Asio flammeus ponapensis is native to Ponapé Island in the south Pacific Ocean. It has shorter wings than the other subspecies.
- Asio flammeus portoricensis is native to Puerto Rico. It is very similar to A.f. cubensis and A.f. domingensis.
- Asio flammeus sanfordi is native to the Falkland Islands. It is smaller and paler than the other subspecies.
- Asio flammeus sandwichensis (the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl or Pueo) is native to all of the Hawaiian Islands. It has more yellow and gray tones in its plumage compared to the other subspecies. Alaskan Short-eared Owls likely found their way to Hawaii and became established following the introduction of rats.
- Asio flammeus suinda is native to southern Peru and southern Brazil through Tierra del Fuego. It is very similar to A. f. flammeus.
Short-eared Owls are often confused with Northern Harriers, which share their range, foraging strategies, and preferred habitats. Northern Harriers have an obvious white rump where the tail joins the body. They also have much smaller heads. In addition, Short-eared Owls have a floppier flight style and have pronounced pale patches in the flight feathers on top of each wing.
They are also frequently confused with their cousin species, the Long-eared Owl (pictured), which also shares parts of its range. These birds are most easily confused while in flight, as both tuck their diagnostic ear tufts when flying. When viewed from below, Short-eared Owls have darker wingtips on the undersides of their wings as well as a brown band at the base of their flight feathers. Their wing undersides are also paler overall.
If you get a look at the face, Short-eared Owls have horizontal black markings around their eyes, while Long-eared Owls have vertical black stripes through their eyes. Also, consider the time of day and habitat. Long-eared Owls prefer areas near dense vegetation and are strictly nocturnal, while Short-eared Owls are found in open habitats at all hours.
On occasion, you may confuse a Barn Owl for a Short-eared Owl as both have large ranges, and Barn Owls may also fly during the day during their breeding season. Barn Owls are paler overall and have dark brown eyes, while Short-eared Owls have more mottled, darker-colored plumage and yellow eyes.
In South America, the Striped Owl, another cousin species, overlaps with the Short-eared Owl in some areas. Striped Owls can be distinguished by their dark eyes and prominent ear tufts.
Short-eared Owl Vocalizations and Sounds
Short-eared Owls are mostly silent outside of the breeding season. If you live within their breeding range, listen for their distinctive hoot series and wing claps at night between late March and early June.
Male Short-eared Owls “sing” a 13 to 20 hoot series to attract females early in the breeding season, either from a perch or during a courtship dive display. Five to six deep, muffled hoots are issued per second for a total length of two seconds. Each hoot rises slightly in pitch. The series sounds like “hoot!-hoot!-hoot!-hoot!-hoot!-hoot! (pause) hoot!-hoot!-hoot!-hoot!-hoot!-hoot!” The song is repeated at intervals.
Listen to the Short-eared Owl’s hoot series:
Both male and female Short-eared Owls will issue a high-pitched, nasally alarm call that sounds like “chee-waaay” or “chee-aaaaaw,” especially when the nest is threatened. Both sexes will also produce barks and wheezing calls that sound like “cheef, cheef.”
Male Short-eared Owls, and on rare occasions females, will also produce a series of loud wing claps that sound like a flag whipping around in the wind or a whip cracking repeatedly.
Where Does the Short-eared Owl Live?
Short-eared Owls inhabit open areas across North America, South America, Europe, North Africa, and northern Asia, as well as many oceanic islands. They can be found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia.
Short-eared Owls have one of the widest distributions of all owls – and all birds. They can be found across North America and in the open regions of South America. They also occur in Europe, North Africa, and northern Asia. They breed in Alaska, across most of Canada, in the extreme northern United States, as well as in South America and the northern parts of Europe and Asia. They occur on all continents except Antarctica and Australia.
In the northernmost parts of their range, Short-eared Owls are migratory. This ability to travel great distances likely led to their colonization of many island systems, including Hawaii, Cuba, the Falkland Islands, and the Galápagos Islands.
In winter, they can be found along the coasts of the United States, in the midwestern United States, in the southern United States, in South America, and in the more temperate regions of Europe and Asia. Short-eared Owls may be year-round in portions of their range where prey is abundant.
Short-eared Owls require large open areas with low vegetation like grasses and shrubs for both foraging and nesting. They avoid heavily fragmented habitats (like suburban areas and cities) and dense forests.
They breed in open fields, marshes, grasslands, agricultural areas, shrub-steppe areas, large clearings at forest edges, heathlands, pastures, wetlands, meadows, dunes, savannahs, tundras, prairies, strip-mined clearings, and coastal grasslands.
In the winter, they can be found in a greater variety of open habitats, including coastal dunes, small meadows, shrubby areas, dumps, gravel pits, shrub thickets, rock quarries, and airports.
They are one of the few bird species that has benefitted from strip-mining practices and now breed farther south in some parts of their range as they move into these newly created open areas.
Short-eared Owl Migration
Short-eared Owls are medium-distance migrants in the northernmost parts of their range, usually moving south to avoid snowpack. When migrating, they soar in a hawk-like manner, traveling at high elevations through mountain passes. They have even been found on ships hundreds of miles at sea. This is likely the reason they have successfully colonized so many island systems the world over.
In some areas, they are year-round residents – but they are always considered nomadic and will move to follow populations of their preferred rodent prey.
Short-eared Owl Diet and Feeding
Short-eared Owls are carnivores that feed primarily on small rodents, specifically voles. They have been known to eat birds and insects as well.
Most of the Short-eared Owl’s diet consists of small rodents. Voles are preferred, but pocket mice, deer mice, and lemmings are also taken.
Short-eared Owls also eat many other small mammals, including moles, shrews, gophers, rabbits, bats, ground squirrels, muskrats, and weasels.
Coastal and wetland populations also feed heavily on birds like shorebirds, storm petrels, gulls, terns, and rails. Both adults and nestlings are commonly taken.
Inland, they prey upon grassland songbird species like blackbirds, larks, starlings, pipits, and tyrant flycatchers. Hawaiian Short-eared Owls occasionally feed on the endangered Hawaiian Thrush.
Rarely, Short-eared Owls will eat insects to supplement their diets. Larger grassland insects like beetles, katydids, cockroaches, and caterpillars are preferred.
Short-eared Owl Breeding
The Short-eared Owl breeding season starts in late March and ends in early June. Typically, they only raise one brood per year, but when prey is abundant, they may raise two. Short-eared Owls are loosely colonial breeders, meaning flocks made up of several pairs may nest in the same area.
Courting male Short-eared Owls put on a real show. They engage in “sky dances,” in which they fly straight up to a great height above a nesting site, hover while singing their several note hoot series, then dive, issuing a series of loud wing claps by slapping their wings together below their bodies on the way down. Sometimes, they may also fall straight down in a shimmying motion with their wings held above their bodies.
Check out this video of a male Short-eared Owl displaying:
A reciprocating female may grapple with a male, locking her talons with his while in flight and plummeting, only releasing their respective grips right before they hit the ground. Males and females may also “flirt” by flashing the pale undersides of their wings at each other. Curiously, males use these same tactics to ward off rivals.
Pairs are monogamous, at least within a single breeding season. Due to their nomadic lifestyles, they likely take different mates each year.
Short-eared Owl pairs select a nest site on the ground, typically in a dry, raised area such as on top of a hummock, ridge, or knoll. They prefer sites with some protection, usually in the cover of tall grass or beneath a dense shrub.
Unlike most owls, Short-eared Owls construct their own nests. Females scrape out a slight depression on the ground with their talons, then line it with soil, fine grasses, weeds, and downy feathers. The result is a true nest about ten inches across and two inches tall. Short-eared Owls may reuse the same nest year to year, often adding a new layer.
The female Short-eared Owl lays three to 11 eggs at an interval of two days or more. The average clutch size is four to eight eggs, but in years where prey is abundant, she may lay up to 14. The eggs are white but quickly become yellowish as they are stained by the nest. They are elliptical and are slightly glossy.
The female begins incubating immediately after laying the first egg. She performs most of the incubation solo for 21 to 37 days, but on occasion, the male will take a turn. For the most part, he provides the female with food while she stays in the nest.
Incubating females will avoid leaving the nest, even in the face of danger, choosing instead to rely on their camouflage and the foliage cover around the nest. If they must leave, they often defecate on their eggs first. The putrid smell likely deters predators by disguising the nest or actively repelling them.
Male Short-eared Owls, meanwhile, defend the nest site with agitated vocalizations and distraction displays in which he feigns having an injured wing to lure potential predators away from the nest.
Owlets hatch over days, and the first-hatched may be considerably larger and older than the last-hatched due to the incubation strategy. The young are altricial, meaning they are helpless with their eyes closed when they first emerge. They are covered in a coat of thick, short down that is cream to buff in color, lighter on the underside and darker above.
The female Short-eared Owl continues to brood the chicks at first, and also broods them in cold weather. Then, she joins the male in hunting for the family full time. The young grow fast and leave the danger of the centralized nest location as soon as possible. At just 12 to 18 days of age, the owlets leave the nest on foot, hiding in the grass nearby while their parents continue to feed them. By 27 to 36 days, they can fly. They remain with their parents for several more weeks before dispersing.
As ground-nesting birds, Short-eared Owls must be on the constant lookout for predators. Both males and females will defend their nest and young with alarm calls and loud wing claps if it is threatened. If the predator is not deterred, they will fly at it, talons first. They will also engage in threat displays, in which they fluff their feathers and spread their wings, tilting them forward to appear larger. They will also use feigned injury displays to try and lead the predator away. Should their efforts fail, they will re-nest if it is early enough in the season.
Short-eared Owl Population
Due to their nomadic lifestyles and the tendency of their numbers to fluctuate with prey availability, Short-eared Owl populations have been difficult to study.
Currently, Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of three million owls. While they are one of the most widely distributed owl species in the world, their populations are declining in some parts of their range, mainly due to habitat loss.
Is the Short-eared Owl Endangered?
Currently, the Short-eared Owl is not considered endangered on a global level. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List lists the species as having a status of Least Concern, meaning it is not at immediate risk for extinction – yet.
The species has, however, experienced significant declines in some areas of its large range in recent years, likely due to habitat loss. In North America, Short-eared Owl numbers have decreased by 65% since 1970. The species was also listed as a “Common Bird in Steep Decline” in the 2014 State of the Birds Report.
Short-eared Owls require large, unfragmented areas of open country, such as grasslands and wetlands. Unfortunately, these areas are being cleared at an alarming rate to make way for urban development, agriculture, recreation, and livestock grazing. Even in cases where only part of the land is cleared, the owls suffer as they need big, uninterrupted areas to support large populations of their rodent prey.
As a result, Short-eared Owls are disappearing from areas where they were once common. Canada now lists the Short-eared Owl as a species of special concern. They have been all but eliminated in some areas of the northeastern and southern United States, and many states, including New Mexico, now list them as locally threatened, endangered, or a species of special concern. The Hawaiian subspecies, Asio flammeus sandwichensis, is also listed as endangered. In central Europe, only 400 pairs remain in the wild.
In places where efforts have been made to restore or protect significant areas of wetlands and grasslands, Short-eared Owls have begun to thrive again. Large-scale habitat conservation is the only way to ensure the continued safety of this species.
Short-eared Owl Habits
Short-eared Owls are crepuscular, that is, most active at dawn and dusk. They can also be observed in broad daylight as well as at night. This makes them one of the easiest owls to see! Find a large open area near you and look (and listen) around dusk. You might get lucky!
Between late March and early June, male Short-eared Owls are more vocal than usual. They “sing” their characteristic hoot series from a perch or while performing aerial displays. Also, listen for their loud wing clap series, which sounds like whips being cracked repeatedly. Vocalizing is most frequent in the spring months of March and April when males attempt to woo females.
The rest of the spring and summer, listen for the nasally barked alarm calls of the adults as they protect their nest. Short-eared Owls are mostly silent outside of the breeding season.
Short-eared Owls hunt by flying very low – sometimes only a few feet off the ground – above grassy fields and open areas, looking but mostly listening for the rustles of small rodents below.
They fly in a floppy, bouncy manner, like a giant bat or moth, and frequently glide with their wings in a slight V-shape or hover. They will also perch on tall posts to survey the ground below. Once the prey has been sighted, the Short-eared Owl will hover briefly six to 100 feet above it to plan its attack before dropping on it and grabbing it in its talons.
Most mammal prey is eviscerated and decapitated, then swallowed whole on site. Birds are decapitated, and the wings are removed. When feeding a mate or young, they will fly back to the nest with the prey clasped in their talons. Like most owls, they cough up a pellet several hours after feeding, full of undigestible parts like fur, bones, and feathers.
Short-eared Owls are very maneuverable in flight and crisscross back and forth over open areas when hunting. On occasion, they will find themselves competing directly with Northern Harriers for prey during the day. Northern Harriers will even steal rodents from Short-eared Owls – and vice versa. Maneuverability certainly comes in handy when out-flying a thief, as much as it does for catching prey or escaping predators. Short-eared Owls can climb quickly to great heights when needed.
Short-eared Owls hunt mostly at dawn and dusk but can be seen around the clock, especially when feeding hungry young. In the winter, they are mostly nocturnal. In areas where prey is plentiful, whole flocks of Short-eared Owls may be seen hunting in the same area. A flock of owls is quite the sight!
During the day, Short-eared Owls roost on the ground among the tall grass, in reeds, or among sand dunes. They rely on their cryptic plumage to keep them safe, but if approached, they will fly a safe distance away.
In the winter, they may roost in flocks of up to 200 owls! On rare occasions, usually, when there is snow on the ground, they will roost in trees, sometimes alongside their cousins, the Long-eared Owls. While they may appear to be communal, Short-eared Owls are primarily solitary birds that simply tolerate each other when conditions are ideal.
Short-eared Owl Predators
As birds of open country, Short-eared Owls must constantly be on the lookout for predators themselves – even while hunting rodents.
Since they are active during the day as well as at dawn and dusk, they are often attacked by large diurnal raptors like Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Goshawks, Bald Eagles, and Gyrfalcons as well as by Snowy Owls in the far north. At night, Great Horned Owls pose the greatest threat. Like the Short-eared Owl, Great Horned Owls also prefer open areas for hunting and may happen across a smaller Short-eared Owl.
Because they nest on the ground, Short-eared Owls also fall victim to many terrestrial predators. Foxes, skunks, coyotes, dogs, crows, ravens, and snakes may all prey on eggs and nestlings – sometimes the incubating female, too. Gulls and jaegers may wreak havoc on the nests of coastal populations.
In addition to predators, Short-eared Owls may also fall victim to collisions with vehicles (both cars and ATVs) as well as aircraft since they often take up residence at airports. Pesticides and rodenticides also impact these rodent-feeding owls.
Note: Avoid using poisoned bait traps to kill rodents. Short-eared Owls will feed on poisoned rodents, and the toxins accumulate in their bodies. This can eventually lead to paralysis and death. They also feed the meat to their young, which can be lethal to them.
Short-eared Owl Lifespan
Like all owls, Short-eared Owls have high mortality early in life, and most do not survive their first year. If they do survive, they may live up to 13 years old in the wild – although the average age is likely much lower.
Answer: Short-eared Owls are named for their ear tufts, which are so short they are hard to see. They belong to a group of owls called the eared owls, all of which have ear tufts. Owls hold their ear tufts in a relaxed posture much of the time, and, in Short-eared Owls, this renders them invisible. When they are excited or trying to camouflage themselves, they will hold their ear tufts straight up.
Answer: If you live within their range, search for a large, open grassland, marsh, or field near you. Watch closely around dusk, and you will likely see Short-eared Owls flying low over the area, hunting for rodents. In spring, listen for the hoot series and wing claps of the courting males. In winter, search all open areas for small flocks of roosting Short-eared Owls.
Answer: Short-eared Owls usually weigh less than a pound and take prey no bigger than a lemming. They also hunt in large unfragmented open country – never in urban areas. They pose no threat to larger cats and dogs and would only be able to take very small kittens or puppies. This would likely never happen as these owls stay far away from urban areas.
Answer: Yes! Short-eared Owls are most active at dawn and dusk, so your likelihood of seeing one in the daytime is much higher than it is with other owls. During the spring and summer, they may frequently hunt in full daylight when feeding hungry owlets.
Answer: Short-eared Owls are declining in many areas due to habitat loss. The best way to help these owls is to directly support the protection and conservation of wetland and grassland areas near you.
You can do this at home by minimizing the use of fertilizer, pesticides, and other chemicals which end up in wetlands and by disposing of these materials properly (not pouring them down the drain). You can also help by planting native plant species in your yard, conserving water, and keeping your pets leashed when visiting wetlands.
The most effective way to save Short-eared Owl habitats, however, is by supporting legislation and programs that work to save existing wetlands and grasslands both locally and federally. For example, Michigan passed the Wetland Protection Act, which requires a permit to drain or building on wetlands. It’s not too late to make a difference!
- Alderfer, J., et al. (2006). Complete Birds of North America (2nd Edition). National Geographic Society.
- Baicich, P.J. & Harrison, C.J.O. (2005). Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (2nd Edition). Princeton University Press.
- Mikkola, H. (2014). Owls of the World: A Photographic Guide. (2nd Edition). Firefly Books.
- Kaufman, K. (1996). Lives of North American Birds (1st Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Sibley, D.A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds (2nd Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
- Sibley, D.A. (2001). The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior (1st Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.