Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
The adult short-eared owl has a round head and short neck. I has prominent, large piercing yellow eyes circled by a black ring with pale buff or whitish rounded ‘disc’ shaped patches surrounding the upper part of the face and forehead. There are small tufts of feathers on the top of the bird’s head with the appearance of ears from where this owl gets its name, they are often difficult to spot and usually lay flat on top of the head. The underside of the bird is a creamy white colour streaked with thin dark lines and a white belly area. The broad underwing is mainly buff or white with blackish wing tips and a narrow dark brown angled bar across the covert feathers towards the end of the wing.
The upperside of the owl is a buff and brown marbled pattern with orange/buff areas across the outer wing and a dark brownish ‘wrist’ patch with similarly coloured wingtips. There is a row of pale-coloured spots running down the back on both sides of the bird above the wings and a short square orange/buff tail with dark stripes running parallel to its outstretched wings. The feathers at the trailing edge of the wings are tipped white. The bill is short and thin, black in colour and hooked. Its feet are black with a yellow sole.
Close up of a Short-Eared Owl
In flight the short-eared will often issue a loud ‘boo – boo – boo’ hoot, alternatively, they have a short almost bark type call of ‘ke-ow’ or ‘waowk’.
Female Short-Eared Owl call
Jarek Matusiak, XC552057. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/552057.
Short-Eared Owl Call
Karl-Birger Strann, XC443556. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/443556.
Short-Eared Owl in flight
As with all other owls, the short-eared is a carnivore preferring as its staple diet the vole but it will also take other small rodents and occasionally birds.
Short-eared owls have one of the most widespread distribution patterns of all birds being found on all continents apart from Australia and Antarctica. Within the UK the bird is classified as being Amber on the category of conservation index.
Short-eared owls prefer open countryside and hunt across farmland, moors and coastal marshes. They are highly terrestrial. The UK’s resident population is predominantly concentrated in the north of England and Scotland although during the winter months visiting migrants can be found throughout our shores, more commonly in wetlands and coastal marsh areas.
Perched Short-Eared Owl on a fence post
Probably the owl which most closely resembles the short-eared and may easily be confused with it is the long-eared owl. Generally, however, the long-eared has darker plumage and a red/orange eye with a dark facial disc and pale coloured eyebrows, angled downwards in an obvious V shape. As previously stated the short-eared is often seen during daylight hours, particularly at and after dawn and before dusk where it can be viewed flying at a low height searching for its prey. Its stiff wings beat a slow rhythm and it tends to glide as it banks and circles across its hunting grounds. More easily sighted in winter in wetland and marsh regions when numbers of birds are greater.
Short-Eared Owl flying
The short-eared constructs a nest on the ground lined with grass or feathers in a scrape in which it lays between 4 to 8 plain creamy white coloured eggs. Up to two broods may be produced between April to July.
Nest of a Short-Eared Owl with chicks and eggs
Whilst some authorities give an estimated lifespan for the short-eared within Europe as between 10 to 15 years others quote a much shorter period with 7 years often given for North American populations.
34cm to 42cm
90cm to 105cm
260g to 350g
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
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