The life of a short-eared owl
Short-eared owls don’t have short ears, but they have several characteristics that aren’t usually associated with owls.
One noticeable difference is that short-eared owls don’t hoot. Most of their calls are bark-like or whine-like noises that sound more like a coyote’s calls than those of a stereotypical owl. Another difference is that short-eared owls aren’t nocturnal. Most owls are associated with night-time, but short-eared owls are most active at dusk.
Their name, short-eared, comes from the small feather tufts on top of their head, but these aren’t ears. A short-eared owl’s ears are located within its facial disc.
Yet another difference is that, unlike many owls, short-eared owls often aren’t often found in trees. They usually perch in short shrubs or some type of thick-stemmed vegetation and they nest on the ground. Short-eared owls have a preference for open areas because they are birds of the prairie. Therein is the primary reason their numbers in Missouri are in decline.
Short-eared owls are one of a number of creatures that have become symbols for this region’s vanishing prairie habitat. These brownish-speckled birds that are more often heard than seen are secure in the northern parts of their North American range, but the same can’t be said in Missouri. Here, they have a state endangerment ranking of S2, which is the second-most severe degree of imperilment (next to S1). The definition of the S2 classification is imperilment because of low numbers of a species or because there is an existing factor (or factors) that makes that species vulnerable to complete disappearance (extirpation) from the state.
In Missouri, that factor is the shrinking amount of prairie habitat the short-eared owl calls home. Although they are also found in bogs or marshes in some parts of their range, in Missouri, they are residents of the prairie. These effective hunters provide a beneficial service to humans by consuming large numbers of mice, rats, voles and other small animals that can be pests to farm operators and other landowners.
Short-eared owls are winter visitors to most grassland areas here in southern Missouri. Depending on weather, they begin to arrive in this part of the state in late November and stay until late February or early March. During this time, their peak time of activity is often the period stretching from late afternoon to dusk/early darkness.
Their summer range extends from northern Missouri up into Canada. Except during courtship and mating, short-eared owls are extremely solitary birds. Short-eared owls are loners to the extent that courting males often offer food to females. This is thought to be a gesture to show females that the courting male is a potential mate – not a food item. Males also use unique aerial displays and wing movements to alert females to their presence and gender.
As with a number of other prairie species, the key to sustaining Missouri’s short-eared owl population is improved habitat. This management benefits more than the short-eared owls that visit our prairies each winter. If you provide good habitat for one species, many other elements of the natural world will benefit, too. All people who like to see a diverse mix of wildlife on their land are the ultimate winners.
You’ll have a chance to hear and, possibly, see short-eared owls on Feb. 6 at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s short-eared owl hike. Participants in this free program, which is for ages 10 and up, will meet at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Shawnee Trail Conservation Area in Barton County. Participants should dress for the weather and should practice social-distancing Masks will be required. People can register for this program at: https://mdc-event-web.s3licensing.com/Event/EventDetails/175739
The meeting location for this program will be e-mailed to participants upon registration. Call 417-629-3434 for more information. Information about short-eared owls and other Missouri birds can also be found at www.missouriconservation.org
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.