Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus
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.
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).
Western Hemisphere Range
Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations:
(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version)
Map Help and Descriptions
(direct evidence "B")
(indirect evidence "b")
No evidence of Breeding
(regular observations "W")
(at least one obs. "w")
(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:
- 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);
- Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
- Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
- 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: mtnhp.org/requests
) 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.
- 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.
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- Commonly Associated with these Ecological Systems
Forest and Woodland Systems
Human Land Use
Shrubland, Steppe and Savanna Systems
Wetland and Riparian Systems
- Occasionally Associated with these Ecological Systems
Forest and Woodland Systems
Human Land Use
Recently Disturbed or Modified
Wetland and Riparian Systems
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).
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
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- Additional ReferencesLegend: View Online Publication
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