Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

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Males and females are not easily distinguishable from each other externally, but females are usually slightly larger. Their feathers are yellow-white and dark brown; parts of the head and especially the legs and flanks are white. Individuals vary considerably in colors. The right and left ears occupy different vertical positions on the sides of their head, but the size and shape of the two ears are the same.


In contrast with many other owls, short-eared owls begin foraging during daylight or early evening. These owls may continue to be active into the night, but usually cease activity after nightfall. They have a tendency to form communal roosts during the winter months.

Short-eared owls are vulnerable primarily to mammalian predation due to the type of open habitat they occupy and their ground nesting habitat.

Food Habits

Short-eared owls prey primarily on voles, mice, and other small mammals. Their strong talons and sharp beak make them well adapted to 'picking up' their food while in flight. These owls may utilize a 'perch-and-pounce' hunting method if there is an adequate perching point available. Otherwise, they hunt by flying two meters above the ground in a regular, slow manner. Short-eared owls rely mainly on auditory clues; using these alone, they can catch prey that is under continuous grass cover.  Like other birds of prey, short-eared owls regurgitate a small pellet containing undigested bones and hair after they eat.


Pair formation begins in mid-February and continues through June. Breeding usually takes place in April while in their summer habitat, but they may breed in their wintering area if food is plentiful. Short-eared owls nest on the ground in protection provided by tall grasses; they often return to the same nests. Each nest contains four to seven white, unspotted eggs. The eggs have an average incubation of 21 days. The young usually disperse from the nest when they are about 14 to 17 days old and are independent one to two weeks after fledging.

Only females brood and feed nestlings, while males provide food and defend the nest with distraction displays and vocalizations. The young are born semi-altricial, which means that they are relatively immobile and helpless when they hatch, but are down-covered rather than naked.

Population Status, Threats & Conservation

Due to their wide distribution, short-eared owls are not a federally endangered species. However, in the Great Lakes region of the United States, this species is threatened by the diminishing area of marshes, bogs and open grasslands. Nesting habits and nomad behavior make this species particularly vulnerable to habitat loss during any season. Due to these factors, short-eared owls are endangered in Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania. They are also threatened in Minnesota, and of special concern in Indiana and Ohio. They are among the rarest nesting owls in Michigan. There are no major efforts to help them recover in these areas.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web