Short-eared Owl

Asio flammeus
Prepared by: 
Bob Walton
  • Length: 13-17" 
  • Wingspan: 38-44"

 Due to the fact that they are active in the morning and evening hours (this habit is known as Crepuscular), and that they sometimes hunt in groups of 20-30 birds, the Short-eared Owl is one of our easiest owls to observe.

The Short-eared Owl is tawny in color, and has dark streaks on the upper breast. Black feathers surround the lemon-yellow eyes. There is a white hourglass shape located between the eyes, and the facial disk is also edged in white. As the name suggests, the ear tufts are very short, and rarely even visible. On perched birds, the wingtips reach slightly beyond the tip of the tail.

Very distinctive in flight, the Short-eared Owl carries the nickname "Loper", referring to its buoyant, moth like flight. While in flight, the Short-ear shows dark spots at the bend of the wing. On the upper wing, these Carpal Patches contrast with the bright buff areas at the base of the primaries.

The typical hunting habitat of the Short-eared Owl consists of open, rolling fields of grass, marshlands, and open tundra. During most of the year, the owl shares this habitat with its diurnal counterpart, the Northern Harrier. Meadow Voles and other rodents, including rabbits, make up 95% of the Short-ear's diet. The rest of the prey base is made up mostly of birds and insects.

When hunting, the Short-ear courses low over its habitat, usually less than twenty feet above the ground. When prey is detected, either by sight or by sound, the owl will drop straight down to the ground, with wings outstretched above its body, for the kill. Often, the owl will hover for quite a while before dropping down upon its prey.

The Short-eared Owl breeds throughout Canada and Alaska, and down through the northern third of the United States. The typical nest consists of a simple scrape in the ground, lined with grasses, feathers, and any other suitable materials. The Short-eared Owl is one of the very few owls that constructs its own nest. The nest is usually very well hidden and the typical clutch consists of 4-7 eggs, although as many as 14 eggs have been found in a nest.

The call of the Short-eared Owl is a raspy wek-wek-wek, sounding quite a bit like the yapping of a small dog. This call is often heard during interactions with Northern Harriers or other raptors.

The Short-eared Owl is a migratory species, with almost all of the owls in the northern parts of their range moving down to the northern United States for the winter months; in the Midwestern states, the Short-ear is considered an uncommon, but regular winter visitor.