My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus

The short-eared owl is a species of typical owl (family Strigidae). Owls belonging to genus Asio are known as the eared owls, as they have tufts of feathers resembling mammalian ears. These “ear” tufts may or may not be visible. Asio flammeus will display its tufts when in a defensive pose, although its very short tufts are usually not visible. The short-eared owl is found in open country and grasslands.

The short-eared owl is a medium-sized owl measuring 34–43 cm (13–17 in) in length and weighing 206–475 g (7.3–16.8 oz). It has large eyes, a big head, a short neck, and broad wings. Its bill is short, strong, hooked and black. Its plumage is mottled tawny to brown with a barred tail and wings. The upper breast is significantly streaked. Its flight is characteristically floppy due to its irregular wingbeats. The short-eared owl may also be described as “moth or bat-like” in flight. Wingspans range from 85 to 110 cm (33 to 43 in). Females are slightly larger than males. The yellow-orange eyes of A. flammeus are exaggerated by black rings encircling each eye, giving the appearance of them wearing mascara, and large, whitish disks of plumage surrounding the eyes like a mask.

Over much of its range, short-eared owls occurs with the similar-looking long-eared owl. At rest, the ear-tufts of long-eared owl serve to easily distinguish the two (although long-eared owl can sometimes hold its ear-tufts flat). The iris-colour differs: yellow in short-eared, and orange in long-eared, and the black surrounding the eyes is vertical on long-eared, and horizontal on short-eared. Overall the short-eared tends to be a paler, sandier bird than the long-eared. There are a number of other ways in which the two species the differ which are best seen when they are flying: a) short-eared often has a broad white band along the rear edge of the wing, which is not shown by long-eared; b) on the upperwing, short-eared owls’ primary-patches are usually paler and more obvious; c) the band on the upper side of short-eared owl’s tail are usually bolder than those of long-eared; d) short-eared’s innermost secondaries are often dark-marked, contrasting with the rest of the underwing; e) the long-eared owl has streaking throughout its underparts whereas on short-eared the streaking ends at the breast; f) the dark markings on the underside of the tips of the longest primaries are bolder on short-eared owl; g) the upperparts are coarsely blotched, whereas on long-eared they are more finely marked. The short-eared owl also differs structurally from the long-eared, having longer, slimmer wings: the long-eared owl has wings shaped more like those of a tawny owl. The long-eared owl generally has different habitat preferences from the short-eared, most often being found concealed in areas with dense wooded thickets. The short-eared owl is often most regularly seen flying about in early morning or late day as it hunts over open habitats.

The short-eared owl occurs on all continents except Antarctica and Australia; thus it has one of the most widespread distributions of any bird. A. flammeus breeds in Europe, Asia, North and South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii and the Galápagos Islands. It is partially migratory, moving south in winter from the northern parts of its range. The short-eared owl is known to relocate to areas of higher rodent populations. It will also wander nomadically in search of better food supplies during years when vole populations are low.

Sexual maturity is attained at one year. Breeding season in the northern hemisphere lasts from March to June, peaking in April. During this time these owls may gather in flocks. During breeding season, the males make great spectacles of themselves in flight to attract females. The male swoops down over the nest flapping its wings in a courtship display. These owls are generally monogamous.

The short-eared owl nests on the ground in prairie, tundra, savanna, or meadow habitats. Nests are concealed by low vegetation, and may be lightly lined by weeds, grass, or feathers. Approximately 4 to 7 white eggs are found in a typical clutch, but clutch size can reach up to a dozen eggs in years when voles are abundant. There is one brood per year. The eggs are incubated mostly by the female for 21–37 days. Offspring fledge at a little over four weeks. This owl is known to lure predators away from its nest by appearing to have a crippled wing.

Hunting occurs mostly at night, but this owl is known to be diurnal and crepuscular as well. Its daylight hunting seems to coincide with the high-activity periods of voles, its preferred prey. It tends to fly only feet above the ground in open fields and grasslands until swooping down upon its prey feet-first. Several owls may hunt over the same open area. Its food consists mainly of rodents, especially voles, but it will eat other small mammals such as mice, ground squirrels, shrews, rats, bats, muskrats and moles. It will also occasionally predate smaller birds, especially when near sea-coasts and adjacent wetlands at which time they attack shorebirds, terns and small gulls and seabirds with semi-regularity. Avian prey is more infrequently preyed on inland and centers on passerines such as larks, icterids, starlings, tyrant flycatchers and pipits. Insects supplement the diet and short-eared owls may prey on roaches, grasshoppers, beetles, katydids and caterpillars. Competition can be fierce in North America with the northern harrier, with which the owl shares similar habitat and prey preferences. Both species will readily harass the other when prey is caught.

Because of the high pH in the stomach of owls they have a reduced ability to digest bone and other hard parts, they eject pellets containing the remains of their prey.


On to my photos:

These photos were shot at the Muskegon County wastewater facility in the fall of 2017.

Short-eared owl in flight


Short-eared owl in flight


Short-eared owl in flight


Short-eared owl in flight


This is number 204 in my photo life list, only 146 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!



13 responses

  1. Amazing photos of a lovely owl- I especially like the photo where he/she is looking over their wing. Fancy spotting an owl flying in the daytime with that great coloured foliage for a backdrop- rather special – like all your photos!


    January 10, 2018 at 6:42 am

    • Thank you very much Marianne! Short-eared owls do hunt during the day, mainly early in the morning and very late afternoon, but it was luck to catch it where I did when I did.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 10, 2018 at 3:27 pm

  2. Another one I haven’t seen. Nice shots!


    January 8, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! Catching an owl during the day when you can make a positive ID is more luck than skill.


      January 9, 2018 at 12:21 am

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  4. Fantastic photos, Jerry! I’ve seen Short-Eareds but always under low-light conditions, I’ve never got a decent picture of them before. These are great!


    January 8, 2018 at 9:48 am

    • Thank you very much! It was raining when I shot those, so it was a low light situation, I just got lucky for a change as far as the quality of the photos.


      January 9, 2018 at 12:19 am

  5. Very nice!


    January 8, 2018 at 6:46 am

  6. Lovely photographs and an illuminating text to go with them, thank you.


    January 8, 2018 at 2:59 am

  7. This is a new one on me, Jerry. I’m thinking that the dramatic patterns on the underside of the winds helped you with the identification. You are honing in on the end of The List, although maybe you’ve got the hardest ones left to go. Then what??


    January 7, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    • Thank you very much Judy! It was the patterns under the wings, along with its face and eyes that allowed me to make the ID. I’m about 2/3rds the way through the list, and it will become harder with each new species that I find. Many of the species left live only in the UP, or are rare visitors to Michigan. I doubt if I will ever actually finish the project, but it helps to keep me motivated every time I do find one.


      January 7, 2018 at 11:02 pm