New York Natural Heritage Program
Short-eared Owl
Asio flammeus (Pontoppidan, 1763)

Identifying Characteristics [-]
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.

Behavior [-]
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).

Diet [-]
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).
Short-eared Owl Images
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The Best Time to See
During the breeding season, the best time to observe Short-eared Owls would be 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.
Present Breeding
The time of year you would expect to find Short-eared Owl present (blue shading) and breeding (orange shading) in New York.
Similar Species
  • Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)
    Northern Harriers have an owl-like facial disk which may cause some confusion when initially trying to distinguish them from Short-eared Owls. Short-eared Owls lack the distinctive white rump patch of Northern Harriers.