The Short-eared Owl is a sleek, lethal jet-fighter of a bird that uses unique, rarely seen aeronautical maneuvers in courtship displays.
More camouflaged than most owls, it hides in plain sight in brambles, bushes and piles of brush. It catches a wider variety of small prey than other owls, but the 1-pound (450 g) owl is itself occasionally eaten by Great Horned Owls, which are five times bigger.
By Rex Graham
In winter, Short-eared Owls can be found throughout most of the U.S.
“My best bet for finding them is to locate a large grassland or cluster of grasslands, which is their preferred habitat,” said expert U.S. birder Corey Lange. “I then drive the roads around the grasslands searching for the birds perched up on fence poles or flying around the area hunting. I have the best luck finding them around dusk and dawn.”
Short-eared Owl Survival Tactics
The owl compensates for its relatively small size by avoiding trees where bigger owls may perch, hunting mostly treeless areas. A nighttime hunter, it’s also active during daylight and twilight when the bigger owls are inactive. (Marsh Hawks and gulls will harass Short-eared Owls during the day to steal their prey.)
Short-eared Owls prefer voles, but also eat small birds. They nest on the tundra and marshes from Russia, Scandinavia and Scotland to Canada and Alaska, according to the Handbook of the Birds of the World.
In winter in North America, they move south to grasslands and coastal salt marshes throughout the lower 48 U.S. states and Mexico. They roost near the ground in groups of a dozen or more.
Short-eared subspecies are year-round residents of Cuba, Hawaii and the Falkland Islands. Another subspecies is the only owl that breeds on the Galapagos Islands.
Birding tours to the Galapagos also provide views of Darwin’s finches, the Galapagos Penguin, Galapagos Hawk, Lava Gull, Galápagos Dove, Blue-footed Booby, Swallow-tailed Gull and Waved Albatross doing their courtship dance.
Owl’s Island Focus on Birds
Short-eared Owls were once persecuted by on Muskeget Island off the coast of Massachusetts for eating tern chicks. The owls also eat Leach’s Storm-petrels, seizing the seabirds on their nocturnal to and from their nest burrows. The pellets of a Short-eared Owl wintering on a marsh in San Diego Bay contained the remains of bats.
More powerful fliers may recognize they have a speed advantage over the owl. A birdwatcher at the Sand Lake Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in South Dakota watched 7 male Pintails circle in a tight formation to repeatedly harass a Short-eared Owl. The ducks forced the owl to continually swerve.
“This was repeated again and again for several minutes until owl and ducks disappeared behind a hill,” John Erickson wrote in The Auk.
Courting pairs of Short-eared Owls perform a sky-dancing flight display, a series of playful, high-speed turns, dives, circles and dips at low altitude. Courting owls (they are seasonally monogamous) emit 15-to-20 toot-toot-toot-toot-toots at the rate of four toots per second during higher altitude courtship flights.
These unique owl flights can be watched in fading light with binoculars. Observers sometimes see the owls make shallow, U-shaped dives, during which they produce a sound like a small flag fluttering in the wind.
A.D. Dubois described such “fluttering flag” dives in The Auk in 1924:
“When the owl began the short dive he brought his wings together beneath him, stretching them back posteriorly and striking them rapidly together with short clapping strokes,” Dubois said. “The dive ended simultaneously with the clapping, when the bird spread his wings, abruptly and noiselessly turning his course upward with a swoop. He seemed to be applauding his own aerial performance.”
Dubois didn’t mention if he also applauded, but he was obviously impressed.