Citizen Science

Short-eared Owls: Help Track a Secretive Bird

March 1, 2016

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Close view of a short-eared owl at the Silver Creek Nature Center, Idaho. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Guy Bonnivier)

Have you seen a short-eared owl? (It’s ok if you say no. That’s the case for most of us).

These nomadic birds range around the world — if you’re in North America, South America, or Eurasia there’s a chance they live near you — but due to their secretive habits and thinly dispersed populations they are rarely seen.

And those sightings are getting fewer and farther between. A study of citizen science projects like the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) has revealed a range-wide, long-term decline (estimated at a cumulative decline of 67% since 1966 by the BBS).

Short-eared owl. Photo © Neil Paprocki

“Those projects weren’t designed for short-eared owls, but the evidence is still compelling,” says Neil Paprocki of HawkWatch International (HWI). “The unknown factor intrigued me and I enjoy working with under-studied or lesser known birds. Short-eared owls are nomadic in their movements and it’s hard to predict where you will find them from year to year.”

He and other researchers at HWI, the Idaho Bird Conservation Partnership, the Intermountain Bird ObservatoryTracy Aviary and Utah DNR were inspired to start targeted Short-eared Owl Surveys that will provide a baseline for short-eared owl abundance and start to answer questions about the cause(s) of the decline and find solutions.

The surveys begin their second year in Idaho and Utah and they hope to expand to other states soon.

Why Are Short-eared Owl Surveys Important?

Finding the cause of short-eared owl declines could help to protect not only these owls, but also other species that depend on the same habitats for survival.

Short-eared owls, though they spend time in other habitats, rely primarily on grasslands for survival. On open grasslands, they find the small mammals that make up most of their diet and in the spring males perform a spectacular courtship dance, dropping from the sky while clapping their wings to impress the females below.

“The biggest suspected threat to short-eared owls is habitat loss and degradation,” Paprocki explains. “They rely on large tracts of grasslands, one of the most threatened habitats in North America due to conversion from agriculture, other development, and the invasion of exotics.”

For instance, in the United States, tallgrass prairie has been reduced by 99% from historical levels and in some states up to 70% of mixed & short-grass prairie is gone.

There is good news. Grasslands can be protected and restored.

Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus ) in Snohomish County, WA. Photo © Tom Talbott/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus ) in Snohomish County, WA. Photo © Tom Talbott/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

With better information about short-eared owls’ favored habitats and hotspots, conservationists, land managers, and city planners can identify key areas to protect.

How Can You Get Involved? 

Check the Short-eared Owl Survey information and, if you’re in Utah or Idaho, fill out a volunteer form. If you’re in another state, you can still support the project and watch the page to see if they expand to your area in future years.

Volunteers sign up to survey an area and receive training in the protocols to follow when surveying and submitting data.

Then get out to see these owls – March-June is the best time to catch their stunning courtship ritual!

Short-eared owl. Photo © Neil Paprocki

Paprocki’s Pro-Tips for Sighting Short-Eared Owls

  • Owls are best seen in the late evening and early morning, while there is still light enough to see. Try going out just before sunset.
  • Look in habitats with a mix of tall and short grass.
  • Watch for the males’ unique courtship display. They are very visible while doing this.

No matter where you are you can support the protection of your local grasslands either through protected areas or conservation easements.

The next time someone asks you if you’ve seen a short-eared owl, I hope you’ll be able to say yes!

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. I wonder about agricultural rodenticide, weed killer, etc.

  2. See them almost every Winter at Middle Creek WMA in Lancaster Co., PA.!

  3. These birds are trying desperately to tell us something. We need to open our ears and hearts and listen.

  4. In 2013 and 2014 we had a nesting pair of short eared owls in the agricultural ranching valley where we live in Carmen, Idaho. They nested in the top of a thicket of cottonwoods. They successfully raised one baby each year. One morning we heard a racket on our roof and there were all 3 of them. The baby appeared bigger than the adults with its fluff. We did not see them last year. We have a large population of mice, voles, gophers this year so perhaps they will return. We had great horned owls last year, so maybe one or the other will return.

  5. We have had a pair of Short-Eared Owls in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada for the past 2 months. They have created quite a stir amongst local bird enthusiasts and the local Thundr Bay Field Naturalists group. I took several good photos of them if you are interested.

  6. Cool article. Art Talsma, recently retired from TNC, and I encountered a pair of Short-eared Owls high in the Owyhee sage steppe 4-6-16. They were using a wetlands/grasslands habitat that we have been involved in for several years with the Owyhee County Local Sage Grouse Working Group. Just another example of how conservation of habitat conserves many species. from the same meadow, pond and willow area we saw Cinnamon Teal, Killdeer, Mallards, Brewers Sparrows, Blackbilled Magpies, Red-winged Blackbirds and more in just a 15 minute period. At various times of the year this habitat hosts not just Sage Grouse but waterfowl, shore birds, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Elk, Sandhill Cranes, Mountain Lions a wide range of amphibians and reptiles and insects far to numerous for me to recount. Thanks for your article and keep up the good work. We need to do all we can to get people excited about habitat conservation. My motto as a photographer is “Shoot, Share and Conserve”

  7. Short-eared owls have been seen reliably for the past few years at the Leque Island unit in Stanwood, WA (Snohomish County). I’ve seen five individuals at one time and one of the bird trip reports from Pilchuck Audubon Society in 2015 reported eight individuals. I’ve also seen two owls while walking the shore trail at Padilla Bay (Skagit County). I am wondering if the photo above credited from Snohomish County might have been taken at Leque Island. The habitat is mixed wetland and grassland with brush and some trees bordered by saltwater on two sides. These owls are so much fun to watch and extremely tolerant of people. The owls at Leque Island have quite the following of photographers and birders and the owls are active all day long during the winter months until they leave for their breeding grounds in mid-to late March.

  8. Hi – I live on the border of New York State in Pennsylvania. I have seen some short-eared owls this past winter. Where can I report these? Thank you!

  9. Short eared owl sighting on my farm in Bourbon County, KY . Seen on September 26, 2016 at about 2 pm., I have pics!