My good friend, Bill and I have logged countless hours dating back to 2016 in hopes of getting an in-flight image of a Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus.) Fortune shined on us yesterday, the forecast was heavily overcast and the light was fading fast, but we struck gold. As we were lucky to get some in-flight images.
Short-eared owls have significance in Missouri and elsewhere for several reasons, a bird species that has a preference for open, grassland areas and has become one of the symbols of this region’s vanishing prairie habitat.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) aka Prairie owl/Marsh Owl/Bog Owl/Northern Short-eared Owl facts and information:
- Short-eared Owls are medium-sized – length between 37 – 38 cm from the tip of bill to tip of tail and wingspan of 3½ feet.
- The Short-eared Owl scientific name flammeus means “fiery”. It is a reference to its boldly streaked plumage.
- Mostly mottled brown and buff on the upper-parts, with black bars on the wings and tail feathers, while the breast is whitish or pale buff, with dense vertical streaking.
- A large round head and diminutive short ear tufts which are difficult to see. The facial disc is ochre, shading into blackish around the eyes. Loral bristles and eyebrows are whitish. Eyes are pale yellow to sulphur-yellow, sometimes bright yellow. The cere is greyish-brown and the bill blackish-horn. The tiny ear-tufts are set close together near the centre of the forehead, often not visible, and erected only when excited. The crown and nape are distinctly streaked dark on yellowish-tawny.
- The female short-eared owl is slightly larger than the male, with heavier streaking and browner upperparts, while the juvenile is darker still, with a brownish-black facial disc. There are ten recognized subspecies of a short-eared owl, which vary in terms of location and coloration.
- Nicknames for Short-eared Owls include evening owl, marsh bog owl, grass owl, meadow owl, mouse-hawk and flat-faced owl.
- Their diet is small mammals and they occasionally take small birds.
- Short-eared Owls can live 13 years.
They’re found on almost all continents (sans Australia and Antarctica). They breed in Canada and the Arctic and then jaunt down to the lower 48 for the winter. They’re visiting now because, well, cold is relative and the food is much easier to find.
Unlike most other owls, short-eared owls are also known for being diurnal — active around dawn and dusk, though some would argue that is it more crepuscular.
Short-eared owls are seasonal visitors to most grassland areas in Missouri. Their summer range extends from northern Missouri up into Canada.
I first heard about them from a husband and wife birding team: Andrew and Chrissy, Chrissy told me to be on the lookout for their vocalization. It sounds much like a varied bark (like a small dog), hoots, squeaks, and hissing sounds.
These owls are most frequently seen in flight in the fading light of dawn and dusk. As Ozark Bill noted, they are in fact crepuscular. The word crepuscular derives from the Latin crepusculum (twilight).
Short-eared owls often exhibit a characteristic “flopping flight” pattern sometimes described as moth-like. This soft and wavering flight is characterized by slow, deep wing-beats and is often supplemented with gliding. This type of flight when flushed from a roost-site, in a display, and for hunting. It will hover and drop vertically, pouncing on prey. They normally hunt in the same fly zone. As its daytime counterpart, the Northern Harrier, it will usually be seen flying low in open habitat.
Diet consists of small mammal, mostly voles and mice. They appear to be an opportunistic hunter taking whatever small mammals and birds are readily available. It is an active hunter, flying low over the ground (less than 6 feet) in search of prey.
Atypical for owls, short-eared owls nest on the ground unless there is snow and sometimes in colonial groups. During the breeding period, female short-eared owls scrape out a bowl and lines it with grasses and downy feathers. The site is chosen on a slight ridge or mound with enough vegetation cover to conceal the incubating female. Egg laying occurs from March through late June. The female will lay as many as 16 eggs in vole plague years, but a usual clutch size is 5 – 6 eggs (slightly higher in the far north). The incubation period is 25 – 29 days. The young leave the nest at 14 – 18 days old while still unable to fly and wander as far as 200 yards from the nest. The young fledge at 24 – 27 days old, although they may not become independent for 50 days.
Until the next adventure.
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