Cover photo credit: www.marieread.com

Status

Special Concern

“Special Concern” means the species lives in the wild in Ontario, is not endangered or threatened, but may become threatened or endangered due to a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.

Date added to the Species at Risk in Ontario List

The Short-eared Owl was already assessed as a species of special concern when the Endangered Species Act took effect in 2008.

What it looks like

The Short-eared Owl has a large, round head, with small tufts of feathers that look like ears. This medium-sized owl is about 34 to 42 centimetres long, with fairly long wings and a short tail. Adults are cryptically coloured to blend in with their surroundings and have a brown back and creamy-buff chest with brown streaks. Males and females are similar in appearance, but females are slightly larger and tend to be darker.

Its colours give the Short-eared Owl excellent camouflage, so this bird is mostly seen in flight, often at dawn and dusk. It can easily be identified by its irregular flight, which resembles that of a foraging moth – deep wingbeats, occasional hovering, and skimming patches of grassland or marsh.

Where it lives

The Short-eared Owl lives in open areas such as grasslands, marshes and tundra where it nests on the ground and hunts for small mammals, especially voles.

Where it’s been found in Ontario

The Short-eared Owl has a world-wide distribution, and in North America its range extends from the tundra south to the central United States. In Ontario, the species has a scattered distribution, found along the James Bay and Hudson Bay coastlines, along the Ottawa River in eastern Ontario, in the far west of the Rainy River District, and elsewhere in southern Ontario, at places such as Wolfe and Amherst Islands near Kingston. Most northern populations are migratory, moving southward in the winter.

map of short-eared owl range

View a Larger version of this map (PDF)

What threatens it

The Short-eared Owl was probably more common and widespread in southern Ontario when there were larger areas of native prairie and savannah, their preferred habitat. The creation of new grasslands with the clearing of forests for farmland may have initially benefited the species, but as agricultural methods became more intensive with the mowing of fields during the nesting season and overgrazing by livestock, these areas became unsuitable for this owl. Other threats include loss of marshes.

Action we are taking

Special concern species do not receive species or habitat protection.

What you can do

Report a sighting

  • Report a sighting of an endangered animal or plant to the Natural Heritage Information Centre. Photographs with specific locations or mapping coordinates are always helpful.
  • Bird Studies Canada is working to advance the understanding, appreciation and conservation of wild birds and their habitat in Ontario and elsewhere. For more information on how you can help, visit: www.bsc-eoc.org.

Volunteer

  • Volunteer with your local nature club or provincial park to participate in surveys or stewardship work focused on species at risk.

Be a good steward

  • Private land owners have a very important role to play in species recovery. You may be eligible for stewardship programs that support the protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitats.

Report illegal activity

Quick facts

  • This owl hunts day and night; mainly at dawn and dusk in winter. It flies low over open ground and locates prey by ear. It kills prey with a bite to the back of the skull, often swallowing it whole.
  • The Short-eared Owl is one of the few species that seems to have benefited from strip-mining. It nests on reclaimed and replanted mines that have been transformed into open areas with vegetation south of its normal breeding range.
  • The Short-eared Owl may compete with the nationally and provincially endangered Barn Owl (Tyto alba) in some areas. Some successful nest box programs to attract Barn Owls have coincided with the decline of the Short-eared Owl in the same area.
  • Short-eared Owls are nomadic, meaning that individuals wander over large distances, usually settling in areas where prey densities are high.
  • The scientific name for Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus, is Latin for “horned owl” (Asio) and “fiery” or “flaming” (flammeus), referring to its plumage.
  • There are 10 subspecies of Short-eared Owl, which can be found on every continent, except Antarctica and Australia.