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Short-eared Owl

Asio flammeus

Length: 13 - 17 inches Wingspan: 38 - 44 inches Seasonality: All Seasons
ID Keys: Pale buffy-brown overall, with strongly streaked breast, dark around yellow eyes, short hard to see ear tufts

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeusThe Short-eared Owl is an owl of open terrain such as prairies and farmland, and is also often active during daylight (particularly right around sunrise and sunset), making it a more observable owl than many.  They often be seen in low flight over fields and grasslands as they search for prey. 

Other than North America, nesting populations can also be found in Eurasia, South America, and even many oceanic islands such as Hawaii. In Hawaii they are locally known as "Pueo" (some photos from below are from Hawaii).They are often rather nomadic in nature, with loose breeding colonies appearing in response to favorable breeding and foraging opportunities, and then disappearing in subsequent years.

Habitat:

Can be found in a variety of open habitats, dependent upon the availability of small rodents.  This may include prairies, large marshes, farmland, shrubby fields, and even tundra.

Diet:

Primarily feeds on small rodents, up to the size of rabbits and muskrats. Will also feed on small birds if available.

Behavior:

They hunt by flying low over fields, hovering and then dropping on their prey upon locating it.  Much of the hunting is done by sound alone, but they are also capable of hunting by sight.  They are most active at dawn and dusk, but do hunt during the daytime as well.  Multiple Short-eared Owls are often found utilizing the same fields for hunting, offering the birder the opportunity to see several in a relatively small area.

Nesting:

 May through June in South Dakota. Short-eared Owls often form small, loose nesting colonies with multiple nesting pairs widely spaced across a given area. Nesting is generally proceeded by courtship display flights from the males, with elaborate flights, "singing", and wing-clapping sounds. They nest in open vegetated habitats, with the nest site placed in a dry location with vegetation that protects and hides the nesting site, such as a clump of grassy vegetation. They construct a nest by developing a shallow scrape on the ground and lining it with grasses and feathers. Females will lay between 2 and 12 eggs, and she alone incubates them. Males however will hang around the nest site, defending it from predators, or using distraction displays to draw predators away. Incubation takes about four weeks.

Song:

Generally quiet, but sometimes gives a barking alarm call. Other vocalizations are often heard in and around nesting sites.

1Click to hear the barking alarm call of a Short-eared Owl disturbed by a dog

2Click to hear calls of a male Short-eared Owl

3Click to hear the clicking begging calls of nestlings

4Click to hear courtship songs and wing noises from a courting male

Migration:

Some birds throughout the northern half of the U.S. are year-round residents.  However, those summering in Canada are strongly migratory, and other populations may be nomadic, depending upon populations of small rodents. In any one given location, Short-eared Owls may be present in strong numbers one year, and be conspicuously absent for many subsequent years.

Interactive eBird map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Short-eared Owl sightings

South Dakota "Hotspot":

Given their nomadic behavior, Short-eared Owls are often present one year and absent the next in a specific location. However, the National Grassland areas of South Dakota are areas where I've always had good luck finding Short-eared Owls, with many sightings documented in the photographs below coming from the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and Grand River National Grasslands.

Similar Species:

With a preference for open habitats and a unique appearance if seen well, Short-eared Owls are generally distinctive. However, they could potentially be confused with the following species if viewing conditions are not ideal:

Conservation Status:

Has disappeared from many former nesting areas in the southern part of its range, probably due to habitat loss. Overall populations in North America also appear to be in decline. However, they are still extremely widespread and are found in good numbers in some areas. The IUCN considers the Short-eared Owl to be a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

1) WhatBird - Short-eared Owl

2) BirdWeb - Short-eared Owl

3) Audubon Guide - Short-eared Owl

Photo Information (top of page)

December 5th, 2005 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Short-eared Owl photos.

Audio File Credits:

1Simon Elliott - From Newcastle upon Tyne in England on December 25th, 1987 - Original information and recording available on xeno-canto.

2Karl-Birger Strann - From Bardu Municipality, Troms, Norway, on May 19th, 2018 - Original information and recording available on xeno-canto

3Simon Elliott - June 16th, 1990 from Kielder Forest, Northumberland, England - Original information and recording available on xeno-canto.

4Jarek Matusiak - From Poland on May 12th, 2020 - Original information and recording available on xeno-canto.

 

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Short-eared Owl - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Uncommon migrant, summer, and winter resident in the western and north-central part of the state.  Casual in the rest of the eastern part of the state.

Additional Short-eared Owl Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
Short-eared Owl 1 - Asio flammeus
Short-eared Owl 2 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 3 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 4 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 5 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 6 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 7 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 8 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 9 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 10 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 11 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 12 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 13 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 14 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 15 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 16 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 17 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 18 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 19 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 20 - Asio flammeusShort-eared Owl 21 - Asio flammeus