BIRD OF THE WEEK: Dec. 30, 2016 SCIENTIFIC NAME: Asio flammeus
POPULATION: 600,000 (North America); 3 million (worldwide)
TREND: Unknown, but can be locally common
HABITAT: Open spaces: grasslands, agricultural fields, marshes, tundra

Short-eared Owl map, NatureServeThe Short-eared Owl's Latin name flammeus, “fiery,” refers to its boldly streaked plumage, which provides excellent camouflage in the open grasslands this bird favors. It is widely distributed around the world, with 10 recognized subspecies, including Hawai'i's only native owl, the Pueo.

Collisions with cars, aircraft, and wind turbines are a major threat. Like other grassland birds, including Long-billed Curlew, Mountain Plover, and Sprague's Pipit, the Short-eared Owl is threatened by habitat loss. Overuse of rodenticides and pesticides also poses problems.

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Short-eared Owls can travel long distances and are found in many parts of the world, including North and South America, Europe, Asia, and many islands. Northern populations tend to be migratory and nomadic. During the winter, large numbers of Short-eared Owls gather in areas with lots of food, and communal winter roosts of up to 200 birds have been recorded.

Owl of Open Spaces

Unlike many other owls, the Short-eared is relatively easy to spot, since it lives in open terrain and is often active during the early morning and evening. It glides low over the ground, with deep, slow wingbeats that give its flight a buoyant, moth-like quality.

Short-eared Owls hunt over open areas, hovering a few feet above ground, then pouncing when prey is located. They occasionally hunt from a perch or while standing on the ground. Short-eared Owls eat mainly small mammals, particularly voles, but sometimes take birds and insects. Their populations are closely linked to the density of the voles and other small mammals that are their primary prey. Like other birds that depend on a fluctuating food resource, the Short-eared Owl shows considerable local variation in its numbers and reproductive success.

Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers often hunt in the same areas, and harass each other when their “day shifts” and “night shifts” overlap. Harriers may even steal food from the owls.

Snappy Courtship Display

Male Short-eared Owls perform eye-catching aerial displays, ascending hundreds of feet above the ground with rhythmic and exaggerated wing beats, hovering, gliding down, and rising again. This display includes “wing clapping,” when the male will snap its wings together below his body in a burst of two to six claps per second, often accompanied by yapping calls. The flight ends with a spectacular descent, where the male hold his wings aloft and shimmies rapidly to the ground.

Other courtship displays include males locking talons and fighting briefly while in flight, or flashing their light underwings toward each other during flights.

Short-eared Owl, Ashok Khosla

Short-eared Owl by Ashok Khosla

Scraping By on Strip Mines

The Short-eared Owl nests on the ground, usually in the shelter of a grass mound or under a grass tuft.  Breeding habitat must have sufficient ground cover to conceal nests and nearby sources of small mammals for food. In ideal habitat, it may nest in loose colonies.

This owl is one of the few bird species that seems to have benefited from strip-mining. It has been found nesting on reclaimed and replanted mines south of its normal breeding range.

Nests are simple scrapes built by the female, lined with grass stems and feathers plucked from her breast. Clutches may be as large as 14 eggs (but average 5 to 7), with large clutches laid during years of high food abundance. The ability to lay large clutches helps Short-eared populations recover after periodic declines. In southern areas, individuals may raise several broods a year. These owls also routinely lay replacement clutches due to high predation rates.

The female does most of the incubation, with the male bringing food to the nest and occasionally taking a turn sitting on the eggs. The owlets grow very rapidly after hatching, and begin to wander from the nest as soon as 12 days, an adaptation that reduces the amount of time they are vulnerable to predation.

Opportunities to Conserve the Owl

ABC has established policies such as Bird-Smart Wind Energy, which emphasizes the importance of careful siting of wind turbines to prevent and mitigate collisions that affect Short-eared Owls and other raptors such as Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle. ABC also continues to raise concerns about proposals for poorly sited wind developments throughout this bird's range.

We work with partners to conserve grassland habitats across the Americas that are used by the Short-eared Owl and many other species; our work in Hawai'i also aims to prevent collisions that endanger the Pueo and endangered native species such as Newell's Shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel.

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