The Short-Eared Owl, with its distinctive appearance and unusual habits, stands as a captivating figure in the avian world.
This guide sheds light on this remarkable raptor, giving enthusiasts and birdwatchers insights into the life and behaviors of this winged wonder.
What does a Short-eared Owl look like?
- Size: Medium-sized, typically measuring between 34 to 43 cm in length.
- Weight: Ranging from 206 to 475 grams.
- Appearance: Characterized by its mottled brown and buff plumage, yellow eyes, and notably short ear tufts. Their facial disk is pale with a noticeable dark rim, giving them a somewhat ‘masked’ appearance.
The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized bird with a round head and a short neck. It has prominent, large yellow eyes circled by a black ring. The upper part of its face and forehead have rounded patches that are pale buff or whitish in color, giving the owl a distinctive appearance.
The bird also has small tufts of feathers on top of its head that resemble ears, although they are often difficult to spot and usually lie flat. The underside of the owl is creamy white in color with thin dark streaks, while the broad underwing is buff or white with blackish wingtips and a narrow dark brown bar.
The upper part of the owl has a buff and brown marbled pattern with orange/buff areas across the outer wing and a dark brownish ‘wrist’ patch. The owl has a short square orange/buff tail with dark stripes parallel to its outstretched wings. The bill is short and thin, black in color and hooked, and the feet are black with a yellow sole.
What does a Short-eared Owl sound like?
The Short-eared Owl is known for its hooting sounds and call sounds. In flight, the owl often issues a loud ‘boo-boo-boo’ hoot, which can be quite distinct and easily recognizable. Alternatively, it has a short almost bark-like call of ‘ke-ow’ or ‘waowk’. These sounds are unique to the Short-eared Owl and are often used for communication purposes.
What does a Short-eared Owl eat?
- Dietary Staples: Primarily small mammals like voles, but will also eat birds and insects.
- Hunting Technique: Unlike many owls, Short-Eared Owls often hunt during daylight, especially during dawn and dusk. They have a distinctive, buoyant flight, often gliding and hovering before diving onto prey.
Like other owls, the Short-eared Owl is a carnivore. Its preferred diet consists mainly of voles, but it will also feed on other small rodents and occasionally birds. The owl is highly adapted to hunting its prey, using its excellent hearing and night vision to locate and capture its food.
Where can I see Short-eared Owls?
- Geographical Spread: Found throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia, and even some Pacific islands.
- Habitat: Prefers open areas like marshes, grasslands, and tundras. Their habitat choice corresponds with their hunting style and preferred prey.
Short-eared Owls prefer open countryside and can be found across farmland, moors, and coastal marshes. They are highly terrestrial and are often seen flying at a low height, searching for prey.
In the UK, the resident population is predominantly concentrated in the north of England and Scotland. However, during the winter months, visiting migrants can be found throughout the country, particularly in wetlands and coastal marsh areas.
Signs and Spotting tips
- Migration: Short-Eared Owls are somewhat nomadic, moving based on prey availability. In some regions, they migrate seasonally.
- Daytime Activity: One of the few owl species that’s often active during the day, especially during breeding season.
To identify a Short-eared Owl, it’s important to note that it closely resembles the Long-eared Owl in appearance. However, there are some key differences. The Long-eared Owl has darker plumage and a red/orange eye with a dark facial disc and pale-colored eyebrows angled downwards in a V shape.
In contrast, the Short-eared Owl has a round head, short neck, and large yellow eyes circled by a black ring. It is often seen during daylight hours, especially at dawn and dusk, when it can be observed flying at a low height across its hunting grounds.
The owl’s stiff wings beat at a slow rhythm, and it tends to glide as it banks and circles in search of prey. During winter, the Short-eared Owl is more easily sighted in wetland and marsh regions when the number of birds is greater.
The ground-nesting Short-Eared Owl is a wanderer of open landscapes. As you delve deeper into the owl kingdom, the petite Little Owls and the camouflaged Long-Eared Owl are a contrast worth exploring. The unique features of the Scops Owl also beckon the curious minds. For a structured introduction to these birds, our Guide to Owls is a treasure trove of information.
How do Short-eared Owls breed?
- Mating: These owls are generally monogamous for a breeding season.
- Nesting: They nest on the ground, hidden in tall grass or other vegetation.
- Offspring: Females lay 4-7 eggs on average and handle the majority of incubation. Males defend the territory and provide food.
- Lifespan: Typical lifespan in the wild ranges from 4 to 6 years, but many face threats from predators and environmental hazards early in life.
Short-eared Owls construct nests on the ground, typically in a scrape lined with grass or feathers. The female owl lays between 4 to 8 plain creamy white eggs in the nest. The breeding season for Short-eared Owls is between April and July, and up to two broods may be produced during this time. The incubation period for the eggs is around 28 to 33 days, and both parents participate in the incubation and care of the young.
How long do Short-eared Owls live for?
The lifespan of Short-eared Owls can vary. Some estimates suggest that within Europe, they can live between 10 to 15 years. However, in North American populations, the lifespan is often considered shorter, with estimates of around 7 years.
Similar birds to a Short-Eared Owl
If you are interested in birds similar to the Short-Eared Owl, you may want to explore the Long-Eared Owl and the Tawny Owl. The Long-Eared Owl can be distinguished by its distinctive ear tufts and bright orange eyes. However, it is primarily a nocturnal species, so sightings during daylight hours are rare. The Tawny Owl, on the other hand, is a carnivorous night hunter and is more widespread throughout Europe and western Asia.
Other birds in the Owls family
If you have a fascination with owls, you may also be interested in learning about other members of the owl family. The Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family and is known for its migratory behavior. The Barn Owl is another well-known owl species and is the most widespread owl species, found on every continent except Antarctica. Both of these owls have unique characteristics and behaviors that make them fascinating to study and observe.
The Short-Eared Owl, with its diurnal habits and graceful presence over open fields, offers a unique sight for those fortunate enough to encounter it. As stewards of the planet, understanding and appreciating these creatures is a step towards ensuring their songs continue to echo across our meadows.