Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Adult Female
Adult Male
Adult Male
ear tufts up

Short-eared Owls are medium sized owls found in grasslands and marshes across much of North America. Short-eareds are ground nesters and form shallow depressions in the soil called scrapes where the females lay their eggs. Unlike their close relatives the Long-eareds (Asio otus), Short-eared Owls inhabit untended fields where grasses and shrubs can protect adults and chicks alike, as well as provide grains and seed to the rodents the birds prey upon.

Short-eareds are one of few North American owls that congregate in winter. Several dozen can often be found in a single field, though a sharp eye is required. These owls are masters at hiding and are not easily flushed. They will often wait motionless (sitting low and camouflaged in the grasses) for potential threats to pass.

Short-eared Owls are easily distinguished from Long-eared Owls simply by their habitat. Long-eareds inhabit mixed forests with a predominance of conifers and are usually only seen in fields during evening or night foraging. In flight, these owls can both present buoyant movements, since their body shapes and weights are very similar. However, Short-eareds are best known for their exaggerated shallow, moth-like wing beats and if spotted in the air, are usually flying low and slowly over fields and marshes in much the same way as Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus). In fact, Short-eareds and Harriers often share their grassy habitats with each other (the Harriers hunt during daylight hours while the owls hunt in the evening and early morning).

There are also many physical differences between Long and Short-eared Owls. The most obvious difference is in "ear" length. Some owls (these two included) have feather tufts above their eyes. These likely play a role in camouflage and communication. Long-eared Owls have very long tufts, typically about one inch in length and usually held upright. Short-eared Owls also have feather tufts, but these are very short and are often overlooked, especially from a distance. To add confusion, all tufted owls can lay these feathers back along their heads. A glance at the face can often help distinguish the two species (please don't stare - owls feel threatened). Most Long-eareds have a vertical black stripe running through their eyes in the feathers of the facial disc. Short-eareds do not have this characteristic and will often have dark black feathers around their eyes. Short-eared Owls also tend to have simple, vertically striped chests while Long-eared Owls have densely barred chests that incorporate some horizontal extensions.
Long-eared Owl
(Asio otus)

Short-eared Owls are one of few North American owl species that can be sexed easily by plumage colouration. Females (above) have pale brown undersides with heavy dark vertical barring. Their facial discs are also washed with the same pale brown. Males (above) have nearly white undersides and paler facial discs. The barring is usually lighter and less dense.

During mating season, male Short-eareds do aerial displays to woo females. After reaching an adequate height, they use their wings to produce clapping sounds. This is done much as we would clap our hands together, but much faster - up to 10 claps per second (1).

Unfortunately, Short-eared Owls remain an elusive species to breed at The Owl Foundation. The cause is likely our lack of fully flighted males and inadequate high, spacious flying space. Because Short-eared Owls are considered of Special Concern by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada), we are anxious to remedy this situation. Some of our more recently admitted males are better fliers than previous suitors. Although still unreleasable, they have a higher potential for impressing our crippled females. As well, plans are already in the works for a Short-eared Owl cage extension. Approximately 30 feet high, this netted area would enclose the grassy meadow behind the Short-eared Owl Complex, allowing males to show off their aerial prowess.


Short-eared Owls produce a variety of yips, barks and whines. The most commonly heard vocalization at The Owl Foundation is a "yeee-OW!!" (below) produced most often in the early evening by both sexes, although females seem to initiate. Birds will call in turn and repeat the vocalization for minutes on end, usually at 15-25 second intervals. Males tend to produce lower pitched yows. Males will also produce a series of soft barks (below), possibly as a contact call. A similar, but quicker and longer series of grunts is uttered by males as an advertisement call (below).



Often produced by females, but also used by males. Pairs will sometimes respond to each other for minutes on end.
Territorial/Contact "Yow!"

A quiet series of barks. This set produced by a male.

Fast series of grunts uttered by a male.
Advertisement call


Rare single barks produced when defending a territory against intruders.


(1) Johnsgard, Paul A. North American Owls: Biology and Natural History. ed 2. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Contact Us | Hours | Home | Legal
© 2008 The Owl Foundation

Owl vocalizations recorded by Kara Kristjanson.
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs and sound files are the property of The Owl Foundation.
No images or sounds on this website are to be duplicated in any way without express written permission
from the party to which they belong.
If you are interested in receiving quality versions, please contact The Owl Foundation.