Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

The short-eared owl is among the most commonly distributed owls in the world. They have wide eyes, short neck, broad wings, and their head is positioned high.

Other features include its bill being short, powerful and black. Their plumage is maculated tawny to brown colour, and the tails, as well as the wings, are barred. The upper layer of its breast is strongly streaked.

This bird’s flight is characteristically flabby because of its irregular wing beat. The black rings magnify its yellow-orange eyes around the eyes.

It looks like a short-eared owl wearing mascara and wide white plumage disks around its eyes, like a mask.

Table of Contents

Scientific classification

SpeciesAsio flammeus


Short-eared owls exist on every continent except the Antarctica and Australia. They breed in the Caribbean, Hawaiian and Galapagos Islands, as well as in Europe, Asia, North, South America and the United States.

Short-eared owls migrate partly, travelling from the northern part of their habitat in the winter to the south.

In years when the population of vole is insufficient, they will often wander nomadically in search of better food supplies. They reside in open territories, tundra, willows, Savannah, meadows, dunes, heathland, wetlands, swamps, and farmland.

Habitat and lifestyle

Short-eared owls usually are isolated, but they typically assemble in communal roosts during the cold winter months.

They can be active all day long, but most hunting takes place at night. Short-eared owls appear to fly low on the ground and fall on their first feet on open fields and grasslands. Many owls may hunt in the same open area.

Northern harrier, which shares common habitat with short-eared owls compete fiercely for food. When prey is captured, both species harass the other. Short-eared owls typically remain silent, especially on the wintering grounds.

Their common sounds are raspy ‘waowk-waowk-waowk-waowk’ or ‘toot-too-toot-toot’ with a scratchy barky. Also, a loud call such as this ‘eee-yerp’ is heard on breeding grounds.


Short-eared owls are carnivores. They eat rodents mostly, but they consume other mammals including mice, earth squirrels, shrews, rats, bats, muscats and moles. Smaller birds and insects are predated as well.

Mating habit

Short-eared owls are considered serially monogamous, which means their pair bonds last for just one breeding season.

The breeding takes place between March and June, in the northern hemisphere, with peaks in April.

Short-eared owls will assemble in flocks during this period, and at the beginning of the breeding season, the males perform great shows to attract the females; the male hurry down the nest in a courtship display, flapping its wings.

Most pairs build their nest on the ground in prairie, tundra, savanna or weed environments. Low-vegetated nests may be protected and lined with weeds, grass or feathers.

The females lay approximately 4 – 7 white eggs, but in many years their preference for prey can result in the production of more than 11 eggs. The eggs are mainly incubated for about 21 – 37 days by the female.

The eggs hatch after four weeks and the owlets mature at the age of one year reproductively.


Short-eared owls are not considered to be endangered. However, they are vulnerable to loss of habitat as a result of agricultural, pasture, reforestation and urbanization growth.

These birds are occasionally slaughtered and persecuted by collisions with cars and planes on airports.


The IUCN red list indicates that the total population of Short-eared Owl is 3,000,000 individual owls equating to 2,000,000 mature ones.

The population of Europe comprises between 54,700 and 186,000 pairs, equivalent to 109,000 – 372,000 mature individuals.

In general, this species is currently included in the IUCN Red List as the least concerned, but its numbers are declining today.

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