Short-eared Owl – Photo by Braydon Luikart

by Bridger Donaldson

Short-eared Owls are a medium-sized owl and are commonly chanced upon in daylight. Their wings are quite long and when perched, usually extend past their tail. The plumage of Short-eared Owls varies among their populations worldwide, but retains a combination of mottled white, tan, beige and brown. They are palest on their belly, and on their chest, they are boldly streaked. This all provides effective camouflage in the open grassy habitats where they are most commonly found. On their underwings, they show dark markings on their wrists and wingtips. They have piercing yellow eyes. Their “ears”, which as in all owls with “horns”, are tufts of feathers on the head and are generally only visible and lifted when agitated. Quite unique to Short-eared Owls is their flight, which is often described as moth or bat-like, with their unhurried, deliberate wingbeats and erratic flight pattern.

To find Short-eared Owls close to our home in the Flathead Valley, you might visit open, relatively treeless areas in the Mission Valley, south of Flathead Lake, and Polson in the late afternoon and early evening. There can be dozens moving about, looking for the ideal field to hunt in for the night. You’re most likely to come across these beautiful, primarily nocturnal, and crepuscular (meaning active at dawn and dusk) owls in grasslands with scattered thickets, shrubs, and fence posts. As the Northern Harriers start to wind down for the day, Short-eared Owls come out en force to work the night shift. These two routines overlap as the sun goes down, and the harriers and owls are often seen harassing each other and tussling over their shared food sources.

The Short-eared Owl is a species found worldwide and has a range that spans North America, and South America outside of the Amazon, Europe, much of Asia and sporadic sightings in Africa. In the breeding season in North America, they range up into the far northern reaches of Alaska and Canada. In the non-breeding season, they winter in much of the southern United States and Mexico, and in Montana. In much of the Midwest and Pacific states, they occur year-round.

Short-eared Owls are known to science under the name Asio flammeus. Flammeus means flaming, or fiery, in Latin. The Genus Asio includes eight other species of owls, including the relative of the Short-eared Owl – the Long-eared Owl, Asio otus – which is also found worldwide, and has been especially researched in Montana.

In their breeding season, Short-eared Owls are usually found nesting on the ground in open expanses, hiding their nest among areas of tall grass. Typically, a clutch of four to seven eggs, up to 11 in years when food is very abundant, are laid in a scrape made by the female. This is usually lined with her own plucked down, and grass. Chicks often leave the nest about two weeks after hatching and become independent from their parents within a month after fledging.

In early spring, one might encounter the remarkable display flight of the male, in which he will ascend hundreds of feet above the ground with exaggerated wing flaps. During this display he rapidly snaps his wings together below his body, creating a clapping sound. This flight ends with the male’s descent to the ground, “sashaying” down, often to where a female is perched.

There is a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl endemic to Hawaii known as the Pueo, it is the only native species of owl on the islands. They are believed to have arrived in Hawaii after Polynesians colonized them, helped along by the introduction of the Polynesian Rat, which likely became its food source. The Pueo figures prominently in Hawaiian mythology, in which they are one of the more well-known forms of ʻaumakua, which are Hawaiian household gods. Hawaiians held the belief that ancestors would transform into ʻaumakua and watch their descendants with love and concern for them as their protectors, while also being the judge of their actions. The only other Owl species with a population in Hawaii is the Barn Owl. Introduced in the late 50’s by Hawaiian officials, it is considered somewhat problematic to native species, but is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Like many other birds, Short-eared Owls are threatened by habitat loss, and protecting the

grasslands in which they live is important. Another threat is widespread use of rodenticides, which can easily kill raptors that take poisoned animals as prey.

Whether you’re in some of the far northern reaches of Russia, around the farmland areas outside of Edmonton, Alberta, come across the Pueo in Kauai, Hawaii… or if you’re just here in the Flathead Valley, keep an eye open and your binoculars out, for this wonderful world-widespread owl.