The Short-eared Owl is unique within its family (Strigidae) in the way it builds a ground nest. The female makes a small scrape in the ground with her body and lines it with nearby material (NatureServe 2003).
The Short-eared Owl population is declining in New York, as it is throughout much its range. The second Breeding Bird Atlas reported probable or confirmed breeding in 13 blocks (McGowan and Corwin 2008). In comparison, the first Breeding Bird Atlas (1980-1985) reported probable or confirmed breeding in 14 blocks (Andrle and Carroll 1988). The number of reported possible breeding blocks declined from 22 during the first Atlas to 11 during the second Atlas. It appears that Long Island has lost nearly all breeding locations for Short-eared Owls with one block reported during the second Atlas compared to nine during the first Atlas. Breeding may no longer occur in the lower Hudson Valley as well as a number of other historically known breeding sites in the state. Wintering Short-eared Owl populations are variable, depending on rodent populations and snow cover.
Currently, it appears that populations are continuing to decline, although it may be difficult to determine trends due to the lack of precise location data from historical records (Schneider 2003). During the first Breeding Bird Atlas (1980-1985), there were five confirmed breeding records, nine probable breeding records, and 22 possible breeding records (Andrle and Carroll 1988). Data from the second Breeding Bird Atlas seems to indicate a decline with four blocks with confirmed breeding, nine blocks with probable breeding, and 11 blocks with possible breeding (McGowan and Corwin 2008). This represents a 33% decline (Corwin 2012). During the first atlas, Short-eared Owls were recorded in nine blocks on Long Island, compared to one block during the second Atlas (Schneider 2008). Breeding may no longer occur in the lower Hudson Valley as well as a number of other historically known breeding sites in the state. Some records may be a single breeding event in an area with unusually high rodent populations. Overall, the distribution in New York is largely unchanged except for the reduction of reports on Long Island (Schneider 2008). Breeding Bird Survey data is too sparse in New York to determine trends. Wintering populations are variable depending on snow cover and rodent populations. It is difficult to determine winter population trends as few sites are surveyed on a regular basis.
During the early 20th century, Eaton (1914) reported Short-eared Owls as one of our most common owls outnumbering all other owls found in lowlands and marshes, especially in the winter. Approximately 60 years later, Bull (1974) described short-eared owl populations as declining with localized breeding reported.
The main management goal is to provide large, contiguous grassland habitat with varying microhabitats/age structures for both breeding and wintering seasons. Management plans should begin with identifying focus areas and the target grassland bird species (Morgan and Burger 2008). Winter raptor locations, especially those with Short-eared Owls, are considered a high priority. Land managers should also consider how late summer and fall management will impact wintering Short-eared Owls. Herkert et al. (1993) recommends restoration sites for the most fragmentation-sensitive grassland birds should be at least 125 acres, however, more than 250 acres would be best. Fragmentation should be eliminated when possible. Short-eared Owls typically breed in large fields with high vegetation density with approximately 20% forbs. Vegetation height preferences range from 40-60 cm (15.5-23.5 in) (Morgan and Burger 2008). Perch sites may be important for Short-eared Owls (Morgan and Burger 2008). Lambert et al (2009) suggests benefits of setting up regional boundaries instead of political boundaries include: consistent data collection in areas with similar habitat characteristics, increases the sample size to detect trends and spatial patterns by region, and allows for an increased number of scientists to collaborate. Management strategies should include working with private landowners and public land managers. Landowner Incentive Program funds to conserve privately-owned grasslands are likely crucial to successful grassland bird habitat restoration. Lazazzero (2006), suggests the goal of sustainable grassland bird populations in the St. Lawrence Plain cannot be met without this type of collaboration. There are three techniques to manage grassland habitat: mowing, burning, and grazing. Some undisturbed habitat should be available for grassland birds each season. One exception is severely degraded habitat which may benefit from restoration of the entire site in a single year, especially if target species are no longer present (Morgan and Burger 2008). The preliminary management steps should be to remove all hedgerows in the managed area, to reduce fragmentation and predator corridors, sometime between August 16 and November 1 (NYS DEC no date-a). Disturbances, such as mowing, planting, harvesting, and driving in fields should be avoided between April 23 to August 15 (NYS DEC no date-a, Morgan and Burger 2008). Wintering birds should not be disturbed by frequent snowmobile or other ATV use or loud noises (e.g., fireworks) (NYS DEC no date-a). Hiking areas should be restricted to the perimeter of the fields to reduce disturbances to breeding birds (Herkert et al. 1993). The recommended optimal mowing window is from Aug 16 to October 1 (NYS DEC no date-a). However, spot mowing may be needed before August 15 to control shrub and forb growth (Morgan and Burger 2008). Mower decks should be set high for spring mowing (before April 23) (Morgan and Burger 2008). Cool season grasses should grow rapidly after early mowing, giving the grasses a chance to compete with forbs. Late season mowing (after August 15) should occur early in the window if the goal is to control forbs, which should be cut prior to seed maturation (NYS DEC no date-a, Morgan and Burger 2008). The preferred mowing height is 8 inches, no less than 6 inches (NYS DEC no date-a). Three to four inches of thatch or 1/3 of the chopped vegetation should be left behind after mowing as it used by nesting birds and it provides cover for moles and voles that are prey for Short-eared Owls (NYS DEC no date-a, NYS DEC no date-b). Thatch also returns nutrients to the soil; however, excessive amounts of thatch may inhibit new grass growth (NYS DEC no date-b). Mowing should occur on a rotational schedule to provide grasslands with different age structures for various grassland bird species (NYS DEC no date-a). Fields 30 acres or larger, should be divided into thirds; smaller fields should be divided in half (NYS DEC no date-a). Grazing leaves behind little or no thatch but does provide nutrients for the soil (manure) and creates mixed height vegetation (Morgan and Burger 2008). Closely monitoring the grassland quality and species present is needed when grazing is used as a management technique because animals can be selective and leave behind undesirable vegetation (Morgan and Burger 2008). Burning is another technique that is used to manage grasslands, especially to encourage warm season grasses (Morgan and Burger 2008). Prescribed burns should occur on larger parcels and no more than 30% should be burned per year (Herkert et al. 1993). Burning should be scheduled in March or April or in October or November (Herkert et al. 1993). This management technique is typically the most expensive method as it requires personnel, training, and equipment (Morgan and Burger 2008). Invasive plant species can pose a significant threat to the quality of the grassland habitat. In addition, invasive species control is challenging (NYS DEC no date-b) and may require years to make an impact (Morgan and Burger 2008). Carefully timed mowing, grazing, and burning can be effective methods to eradicate invasive species. If nothing else works, herbicides may be a last resort.
The most significant threat to Short-eared Owls is habitat loss due to development, reforestation, wetland loss, and changes in farming practices such as conversion of hayfields to row crops or more frequent mowing of hayfields (Corwin 2012, Morgan and Burger 2008, Post 2004, Wiggins et al. 2020). Invasive species pose a threat to grassland habitat quality and increase the speed of succession (Morgan and Burger 2008). As a ground-nesting bird, eggs and unfledged young are at risk of depredation by mammalian predators such as foxes, raccoons, and skunks, especially in areas with fragmented habitat. There is also increased risk of depredation of unfledged young and prey by domestic and feral cats and dogs in areas with some development (Wiggins et al 2020). A limiting factor for Short-eared Owls is their dependency on microtine rodent populations. Poisoning may be a threat in areas where humans are attempting to control rodent populations. As with many raptors, Short-eared Owls have been subjected to shooting by humans.
Population monitoring standards need to be developed and implemented to better estimate the local population status (distribution, abundance, and trends) during the breeding and non-breeding seasons. Current methods, such as flushing sitting females or roadside counts, are either labor and time intensive or result in under-estimating population sizes. More could be learned about nocturnal movements, migration patterns, adult and juvenile mortality, and the relationship between rodent abundance and territory size. Studies are needed on the effects of habitat management (i.e. burning, mowing, and plowing) on grassland birds (Morgan and Burger 2008, Post 2004) as well as small mammal populations. Additional studies are needed on the how native vs non-native grasses affect the grassland bird diversity (Morgan and Burger 2008).
Open areas such as grasslands (hayfields, fallow farm lands, and pastures) and fresh and salt water marshes are typically used during the Short-eared Owl breeding season in New York. They tend to prefer habitats with some water which may be due to the habitat preference of voles, their primary prey. Day roosts are typically on the ground, but also may be under low shrubs, in conifers, or low open perches. During the winter months, Short-eared Owls use habitats similar to the those of the breeding season. They also can be found at old dumps where rodent populations may be high. They may move further south during winters with deep snow cover.
New York is the southern edge of the Short-eared Owl breeding range with the exception of some scattered breeding records as far south as Virginia (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2003). The breeding range in the state is generally limited to the St. Lawrence and Lake Champlain valleys, the Great Lakes Plains, and marshes along the south shore of Long Island. Between the fall and spring, the number of Short-eared Owl observations increases as northern populations migrate south, possibly in search of food. Significant numbers of wintering owls are in the Finger Lakes and the Lake Ontario plains, especially in Jefferson County, at scattered locations in the Hudson Valley, and the south shore of Long Island.
Breeding: In North America, Short-eared Owls are found from northern Alaska to northern Labrador, south to California, Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, and Virginia. They are more numerous in western and central North America than in eastern North America. Breeding has been recorded in small numbers in every province and territory in Canada (NatureServe 2003). Currently, in the northeastern United States, nesting is known in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania (Tate 1992). Breeding has also been documented in the Hawaiian Islands, Caroline Islands (Ponape), and Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico) (AOU 1983). In Eurasia, Short-eared Owls are found from Iceland, British Isles, Scandinavia, northern Russia, and northern Siberia south to southern Europe, Afghanistan, northern Mongolia, the northern Kurile Islands, and Kamchatka. Non-breeding: Outside of the breeding season, Short-eared Owls are more common from the southern parts of most of the Canadian provinces south to southern Baja California, southern Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and Florida. Short-eared Owls reside on all the main islands of Hawaii and can be found in the Greater Antilles, but are uncommon in Puerto Rico, including Isla Culebra. In the Old World, non-breeding birds are found from areas within the breeding range south to northwestern Africa, the Mediterranean region, Ceylon, southern China, and Japan (AOU 1983).
Short-eared Owls are a small to medium-sized owl. They are characterized by their barely visible ear tufts and a whitish facial disk with a dark area around bright yellow eyes. The back and upper wings are tawny brown to buff colored with some streaking. The ventral surface is much lighter with bold vertical streaking on the breast and a pale belly that is lightly streaked. Wings are long with a buffy patch beyond the wrist. They have a distinct black carpal bar. There is a dark patch at the base of the primaries. Legs and feet are feathered. Sexes are similar. Generally, females are darker than males; young birds are darker than older birds. Juveniles have a dark facial disk that lightens with age. They have full adult plumage by October of the first year. Short-eared Owl flight is described as "moth or bat-like". Wing beats are unhurried and irregular. They fly low over grasslands or mashes. Females make a simple nest by creating a small depression in the ground and lining it with grass, leaves, twigs, or feathers. Eggs are white, short, elliptical, smooth, and non-glossy. Short-eared Owls are generally silent, but do occassionally vocalize. Males will make a muffled "poo, poo, poo" sound. Both sexes have an alarm call that is described as nasal barks and wheezy notes ("cheef, cheef, cheef" and "cheewaay"). Young owls have a food-begging call ("pssssip"). Both adults and young will clack their bills when annoyed or in defense. In flight, Short-eared Owls will clap their wings making the sound similar to that of a cracking whip.
Short-eared Owls detect prey by coursing open areas while flying low to the ground. They may briefly hover over prey before taking it. At times, they hunt from a perch. Short-eared Owls were observed caching prey during the winter in Jefferson County (G.A. Smith, pers. comm. cited in NatureServe 2003). There are three displays most commonly observed during the breeding season: wing-clapping, exaggerated wing-beats, and skirmishing. These behaviors are usually performed in territorial defense or courtship. Skirmishes can be aggressive in nature. The male Short-eared Owl courtship display is in flight and involves vocalization, a spiraling flight, and wing-clapping (NatureServe 2003).
Microtine rodents are the preferred prey. However, Short-eared Owl prey also includes other small mammals and sometimes birds. Young may also take insects (NatureServe 2003).
During the breeding season, the best time to observe Short-eared Owls is between March and April when courtship and territorial defense begin. There is an increased likelihood of observing birds during the fall and early winter while birds are migrating to their wintering grounds in the state. Short-eared Owls are found on their wintering grounds from early winter to late winter or early spring.
The time of year you would expect to find Short-eared Owl active and reproducing in New York.
Asio flammeus (Pontoppidan, 1763)
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This guide was authored by: Shaw, Hollie Y.
Information for this guide was last updated on: June 29, 2020
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2021. Online Conservation Guide for Asio flammeus. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/short-eared-owl/. Accessed January 21, 2021.