Owls of Iowa: Short-eared Owl

short-eared owl

You may not have even heard of the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), because it is not common in Iowa.

Although it is widely distributed throughout North America and is one of the world's most distributed owls, it is endangered in the state of Iowa.

Their "ears" are hard to see.

One would think with "ears" in its name, that it would have conspicuous "ears." However, the short-eared owls' ears are not ears, they are tufts, like the long-eared owl. Plus, the short-eared owls' tufts are so short that they are often even difficult to see.

Instead, it can be identified by its streaky feathers, dark eye patches and white face. While flying, it can be distinguished by its barred wing tips.

Short-eared owls are more common in winter.

These breed in Alaska, throughout Canada and parts of the northern U.S. and live year-round in northern states and only fly south during the winter months. In Iowa, you could see this bird year-round.

They are diurnal.

Bucking the typical owl trend, short-eared owls are diurnal, which means they are active during the day.

They hunt by flying over short vegetation in grasslands and open areas, looking for small prey such as mice and voles. They will also take down bats, and small birds. Before eating, they will decapitate their prey and eviscerate it before swallowing it whole. If it is a bird, they take the wings off before eating it.

a short-eared owl on the ground

They're ground nesters.

Short-eared owls build their own nests, instead of commandeering another nest like some other owls do. Short-eared owls nest on the ground amidst vegetation for camouflage, scraping a bowl out of the ground and lining it with grasses and feathers.

Short-eared owls are in decline.

Short-eared owls are state endangered in Iowa, and they were listed as a common bird in steep decline on the 2014 State of the Birds Report. However, they were not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds Report.

They hunt on large grassland areas and appear to be vulnerable to habitat loss and fragmentation, which would explain their state in Iowa. Habitat loss from agriculture, livestock grazing, recreation and development appears to be the major sources of population decline, according to Cornell University.

flying short-eared owl