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Short-eared owl

Short-eared owlShort-eared owl
Scientific name

Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus). 

Habitat

Rough, open ground, particularly moorland, marshes and sand dunes, or grazing land close to the moor edge. Newly planted conifer plantations are excellent habitat for short-eared owls but only while the trees are small and the habitat is open.  

Appearance

This medium-sized owl is streaky brown and grey but individuals vary quite a lot in colour, and the females are slightly bigger and darker than the males. It has excellent hearing and eyesight which help it locate and catch prey. It has black eyes circled with yellow which indicates that it is diurnal – ie, it hunts by day, unlike most other owls. It has a round, pale face with two small tufts on its head that look like ears but are just tufts of feathers. Its real ears are on the side of its head, hidden under feathers.

Short-eared owls have large wings and fly slowly, just a few metres above the ground. Their feathers are very soft which means they can fly silently when hunting. They have long, sharp talons designed for catching and carrying prey and a sharp hooked beak designed for tearing flesh.

Lifestyle

They eat small animals, mainly voles, which they catch by flying low above the ground and then swooping on their prey, which they eat on the ground and swallow head first. A single owl may eat several thousand voles in a year. The number of short-eared owls depends very much on the number of voles in an area. If voles are scarce then the owls go hungry and some may not survive. If voles are abundant, a pair of owls may be able to raise two broods of chicks in a year.  

When a male owl is trying to attract a female he performs a flying display which sometimes involves clapping his wings together. Once a pair of owls has mated, they make a nest on the ground amongst heather or grass. The female lays up to 8 eggs, which are white and almost spherical (like a ping pong ball). The female incubates the eggs for about 26 days until they hatch. Both parents protect the nest and feed the chicks for up to 4 weeks until they can fly. Like many ground-nesting birds, adults can pretend to have a broken wing and flutter across the ground to lure a predator away from the nest.  

After 12 to 18 days the young chicks cannot fly but leave the nest and hide in vegetation as the nest is a target for predators. In a good year, with plenty of voles and mice, all the chicks may survive. 

Conservation

The short-eared owl is not thought to be endangered because it is found in many places around the world. However, in Europe its numbers are a concern – it is thought that up to 3,500 pairs of short eared owls breed in Britain.

The population in the North York Moors National Park is very small and is related to the abundance of voles and mice. Where conditions are good there could be up to 5 pairs per 10 square kilometres. Their numbers increase in winter when the resident population is joined by over wintering migrants from Scandinavia.