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Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus

Potential Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S4

Agency Status
PIF: 3

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Copyright by: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, all rights reserved.
General Description
Short-eared Owls are a small to medium-sized owl. Published lengths range from 37 to 39 centimeters (Cramp 1985) to 34 to 42 centimeters (Mikkola 1983), with females slightly larger than males and considerably heavier, averaging 411 grams compared to 350 grams for males (Mikkola 1983). They are excellent flyers with long wings (95 to 110 centimeters) (Cramp 1985), and light wing-loading (0.333 gram per centimeter squared) (Clark 1975). There is little difference in wing length between the sexes (Clark and Ward 1974). The back and upper wing surfaces are tawny-brown to buff-colored with heavy but indistinct streaking. The ventral surfaces are much lighter, with bold, vertical brown streaking on the breast, and a pair of barely visible ear tufts close together at the top of the facial disk. The belly is pale, lightly streaked; the wings are long and have a buffy patch beyond the wrist above and a dark patch at the base of the primaries below; the dark facial disk contrasts with yellow eyes; and the legs and feet are feathered. Mature males are bright white on the underwing, while mature females show somewhat more buff coloration (Bent 1938, Village 1987). It is, nonetheless, difficult to sex or age these birds in the field. Females are generally darker than males but young birds are also darker than older ones (Mikkola 1983), thus a young male may be darker than an old female. Both sexes have a distinct, black carpal bar and dark wingtips. Juveniles possess full adult plumage by October of the first year (Bent 1938, Cramp 1985). The facial disc is circular and whitish with dark areas around the bright, yellow eyes, black bill. Recently fledged and juvenile Short-eared Owls show much darker coloration overall and a much darker facial disc which whitens with age. The Short-eared Owl gets its common name from the small ear tufts over the eyes. These inconspicuous tufts are part of the facial disc and are generally not seen except when female is in camouflage position on nest or erected when the bird is annoyed or alert. They may possibly aid in making birds more cryptic when in vegetation by breaking the line of the circular facial disc.

The bird is generally silent but does vocalize in courtship (a low, repeated, hooting "voo, hoo, hoo, hoo", or in conjunction with defensive behavior or annoyance, yaps or barks). The call is given approximately 15 times during courtship flight and is also accompanied by an audible wing-clap and dive between calls. Young give a food-begging call ("pssssip") that apparently aids adults in locating them from the time they leave the nest until after fledging. Adults may squeal while feigning injury during broken-wing acts to distract intruders from nests or young. Both young and adults will clack their bills when annoyed or in defense. Apparently, no data exist on the use of broadcasting tape-recorded vocalizations for detection or monitoring purposes.

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Short-eared Owls can be distinguished by large "wrist" patches and moth-like flight. Long-eared Owl (Asio otis) has a smaller "wrist" patch, buffy underwings, and a darker belly. Although Long-eared Owls hunt similarly to Short-eared Owls, they are rarely seen hunting during the day. Short-eared Owls are probably the most diurnal of owls (Lockie 1955, Clark 1975) and may often be observed from late afternoon until nightfall, or at dawn. A crow-sized owl seen abroad during daylight in open country will most likely be a Short-eared Owl. However, they also hunt at night. They are easily recognized by their blunt-headed profile and the fact that they glide with their wings held horizontally. This contrasts with the shallow v-shape of the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) with which the Short-eared Owl often shares habitat and may be confused. Northern Harriers may also be distinguished by their white rump patch. Habitat is useful in separating Short-eared Owls from Long-eared Owls, the latter being predominantly a woodland dweller. The Long-eared Owl is also more slender with much longer ear tufts. Burrowing Owl also inhabits open country but is smaller (24 centimeters vs. 38 centimeters), has relatively longer legs, a yellow to whitish bill, and (in adults) has at least some horizontal barring on the breast. The Short-eared Owl's style of flight is unique and has at times been called mechanical, moth-like, or even slovenly (Peterson 1934).

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions


Western Hemisphere Range


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 3404

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Migratory; however, some individuals may not migrate. Migratory in northern parts of range (Johnsgard 1988). Some suggestion of migration in MT: late February to early March (Davis 1961).

Open grasslands, plains, and agricultural areas with suitable vegetation and food.

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
A vole or field mouse specialist; almost the entire diet made up of these small rodents. A study of Short-eared Owl pellets in Ninepipes NWR yielded a 3.7:1 ratio of female:male Microtus (montanus and pennsylvanicus) eaten; snap-trap data yielded a 2.4:1 ratio (Holt and Williams 1995); it is impossible, however, to conclude from this data that Short-eared Owls were preferentially selecting females over males, as there could be more females in the prey population.

Reproduction and population dynamics are closely linked to fluctuating prey density (Wiggins et al. 2006).

Reproductive Characteristics
Begins nesting in late February to March. Nests on the ground in a small depression, often with grasses placed around the depression; nest resembles a small bowl. Clutch size four to ten. Incubation approximately 26 days. Young fledge at 30 to 40 days. Egg records are from April 3 to June 13 (Davis 1961).

Short-eared owls require relatively large areas of grassland and are ground nesters, and thus are susceptible to the increased predation pressure often associated with fragmented habitats and nearby rural developments. As a result, they seem to be especially sensitive to loss and fragmentation of habitat. (Wiggins et al. 2006)

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Bent, A.C. 1938. Life histories of North American birds of prey. Part 2. U.S. Nat. Mus. Bull. 170. 482 pp., 92 pls.
    • Clark, R.J. and J.G. Ward. 1974. Interspecific competition in two species of open country raptors; Circus cyaneus and Asio flammeus. Proc. Pa. Acad. Sci. 48:79-87.
    • Clark, W.S. 1975. A field study of the Short-Eared Owl, Asio flammeus (Pontoppidan), in North America. Wildl. Monogr. No. 47. 67 pp.
    • Cramp, S., ed. 1985. Handbook of the birds of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Volume 4, the birds of the western Palearctic. Terns to woodpeckers. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England.
    • Davis, C.V. 1961. A distributional study of the birds of Montana. Ph.D. Dissertation. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University. 462 p.
    • Holt, D.W. and P.A. Williams. 1995. Sex of voles eaten by Short-eared owls. Northwestern Naturalist 76:145-147.
    • Johnsgard, P. 1988. North American owls: biology and natural history. Smithsonian Institution Press. 336 pp.
    • Lockie, J.D. 1955. The breeding habits and food of short-eared owls after a vole plague. Bird Study 2:53-69.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Mikkola, H. 1983. Owls of Europe. Buteo Books, Vermillion, South Dakota. 400 pp.
    • Peterson, R.T. 1934. A field guide to the birds. First edition. Houghton Mifflin Co., Cambridge, Massachusetts.
    • Village, A. 1987. Numbers, territory-size and turnover of short-eared owls Asio flammeus in relation to vole abundance. Ornis Scandinavica 18:198-204.
    • Wiggins, D.A., D.W. Holt, and S.M. Leasure. 2006. Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: (Accessed 23 March 2016)
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Allen, G. T. 1979. An assessment of potential conflicts between nesting raptors and human activities in the Long Pines area of southeastern Montana with special emphasis on uranium development. M.S. thesis, Washington State University, Pullman. 109 pp.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Becker, Dale M., 1980, A Survey of raptors on national forest land in Carter County, Montana. Final Progress Report: 1977-1979.
    • Best, L.B. 1970. Effects of ecological changes induced by various sagebrush control techniques on non-game birds. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman,MT: Montana State University. 74 p.
    • Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 2017. Pocket Guide to Northern Prairie Birds. Brighton, CO: Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 98 p.
    • Cameron, E. S. 1907. The birds of Custer and Dawson counties, Montana. Auk 24(3): 241-270.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Clawson, M.R. 199. An investigation of factors that may affect nest success in CRP lands and other grassland habitats in an agricultural landscape. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 45 p.
    • Confluence Consulting Inc. 2011. Montana Department of Transportation Wetland Mitigation Monitoring Reports (various sites). MDT Helena, MT.
    • Craighead, A.C. 2000. Pellet and scat analysis as indicators of present and past habitats. M.Sc. Theses. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 219 p.
    • Decker Coal Co., 1981, Wildlife survey. July 7, 1981. In North Decker 5-Year Permit Application. Vol. III. Rule 26.4.304(12-14).
    • Dickson, D.C. 1991. Systematic wildlife observations on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Missoula, MT. 14 pp. plus appendices and photographs.
    • Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. U.S.D.A. For. Serv. N. Region Publ. R1-93-34. Missoula, Mont.
    • Dood, A.R. 1980. Terry Badlands nongame survey and inventory final report. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and Bureau of Land Management, Helena, MT. 70 pp.
    • DuBois, K.L. 1979. An inventory of the avifauna in the Long Pines of Southeastern Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 113 p.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Fjell, Alan K., and Brian R. Mahan., 1983, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1982 field season. May 1983.
    • Fondell, T.F. and I.J. Ball. 2004. Density and success of bird nests relative to grazing on western Montana grasslands. Biological Conservation 117:203-213.
    • Gillihan, SW. and T. VerCauteren. 2015. Pocket Guide to Prairie Birds. Brighton, CO: Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 91 p.
    • Gniadek, S. 1983. Southwest Glendive Wildlife Baseline Inventory. Miles City, Mont: Bureau of Land Management, Miles City District Office. 56 pp with appendices.
    • Hays, R., R.L. Eng, and C.V. Davis (preparers). 1984. A list of Montana birds. Helena, MT: MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
    • Hendricks, P, S. Lenard, and C. Currier. 2012. Grassland Bird Surveys in North Valley County and Northwest Phillips County, Montana: 2011 Summary. Report to the USDI Bureau of Land Management. Montana Natural Heritage Program. Helena, MT. 7pp.
    • Hendricks, P. 2000. Roadside bird counts on BLM lands in Petroleum and Fergus Counties, Montana. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. 57pp.
    • Hendricks, P. and M. Roedel. 2001. A faunal survey of the Centennial Valley Sandhills, Beaverhead County, Montana. Report to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. 44 p.
    • Hendricks, P., G.M. Kudray, S. Lenard, and B.A. Maxell. 2007. A Multi-Scale Analysis Linking Prairie Breeding Birds to Site and Landscape Factors Including USGS GAP Data. Helena, Mont: Montana Natural Heritage Program.
    • Hendricks, P., S. Lenard, C. Currier, and J. Carlson. 2007. Grassland bird surveys in north Valley County, Montana: 2001-2006. Report to the Bureau of Land Management, Glasgow Field Office. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, Montana. 19 pp. plus appendices.
    • Holt, D. W., and S. M. Leasure. 1993. Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). In The birds of North America, No. 62 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and American Ornithologists’ Union. [Revised online 1 June 2006]
    • Holt, D. W., L. J. Lyon, and R. Hale. 1987. Techniques for differentiating pellets of short-eared owls and northern harriers. Condor 89:929-931.
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    • Matthews, W.L. 1981. Broadus-Pumpkin Creek baseline inventory - wildlife. Bureau of Land Management, Miles City, MT. 83 p.
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    • Pitkin, P. and L. Quattrini. 2017. Pocket Guide to Sagebrush Birds. Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Point Blue Conservation Science. 68 p.
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