Short-eared owls are winter visitors to most of the grassland areas here in southern Missouri. Depending on the weather, they arrive in this part of the state in late November and stay until late February or early March.
Short-eared owls do not have short ears, but they have several characteristics that are not normally associated with owls.
One notable difference is that short-eared owls don’t scream. Most of their calls are barking or whining noises that sound more like the calls of a coyote than those of a stereotypical owl. Another difference is that short-eared owls are not nocturnal. Most owls are associated with the night, but short-eared owls are most active at dusk.
Her name, short-eared, comes from the little tufts of feathers on her head, but those aren’t ears. A short-eared owl’s ears are in its face disc.
Another difference is that, unlike many owls, short-eared owls are often not common in trees. They usually sit in short shrubs or some kind of dense vegetation and nest on the ground. Short-eared owls prefer open areas because they are birds of the prairie. That is the main reason their numbers are falling in Missouri.
Short-eared owls are one of a number of creatures that have become symbols of the disappearing prairie habitat in this region. Heard rather than seen, these brownish-speckled birds are safe in the northern parts of their North American range, but the same cannot be said in Missouri. Here they have a state risk ranking of S2, which is the second most severe degree of risk (next to S1). The definition of the S2 classification is a vulnerability due to a low number of species or because there are one or more factors that make that species susceptible to complete disappearance (extinction) from the state.
In Missouri, that factor is the shrinking amount of prairie habitat that the short-eared owl calls on at home. Although they are also found in bogs or swamps in some parts of their range, in Missouri they are residents of the prairie. These effective hunters provide a useful service to humans by consuming large numbers of mice, rats, voles, and other small animals that can be pests to farm owners and other landowners.
Short-eared owls are winter visitors to most of the grassland areas here in southern Missouri. Depending on the weather, they arrive in this part of the state in late November and stay until late February or early March. During this time, their main activity time is often the period stretching from late afternoon to dusk / early dark.
Their summer offerings stretch from northern Missouri to Canada. Short-eared owls are extremely solitary birds, except during courtship and mating. Short-eared owls are loners in that courting males often offer food to women. This is believed to be a gesture to show women that the courting man is a potential partner – not food. Men also use unique aerial imagery and wing movements to alert women to their presence and gender.
As with a number of other prairie species, key to maintaining Missouri’s short-eared population is improved habitat. This management benefits more than the short-eared owls that visit our prairie every winter. Providing a good habitat for one species will benefit many other elements of the natural world as well. All people who want to see a diverse mix of wildlife on their land are the ultimate winners.
On February 6, you will have the opportunity to hear and potentially see short-eared owls on the Missouri Department of Conservation’s short-eared owl migration. Participants in this free program, ages 10+, will meet in the Shawnee Trail Conservation Area of the Missouri Department of Conservation in Barton County. Participants should adapt to the weather and practice socially distancing masks. Individuals can register for this program at the following address: https://mdc-event-web.s3licensing.com/Event/EventDetails/175739
The venue for this program will be emailed to participants when they register. For more information, call 417-629-3434. Information about short-eared owls and other Missouri birds can also be found at www.missouriconservation.org
Francis Skalicky is the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region media specialist. For more information on nature conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.