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Shadow in the grasslands: Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl
A Short-eared Owl stands in silhouette in the setting sun. The owl’s worldwide population is approximately 3 million individuals. In North America, its numbers have declined significantly in the last 40 years. Photo by Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In frostbitten February air near the New York-Vermont border, twilight has opened a portal to another world. Like bats that flutter from caves at sundown, Short-eared Owls take to the skies every evening in Fort Edward, New York, near the Little Theater on the Farm.

The Little Theater, a rural farm complex that hosts performances from spring through fall, sits alongside wonderful habitat for the owl. The fields adjacent to the farm are owned by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Across North America, certain sites that support wintering Short-eared Owls have been designated as Important Bird Areas (IBAs), places identified as globally important for the conservation of bird populations. In the U.S., IBAs are administered by the National Audubon Society.

The Fort Edward Grasslands IBA stretches as far as the eye can see, encompassing 13,000 acres of grassland habitat in the towns of Argyle, Fort Edward, and Kingsbury. Wintering raptors include Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl, and sometimes Snowy Owl, says Laurie LaFond, director of the Grassland Bird Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to conserve critical habitat for grassland birds. In New York, Short-eared Owls are listed as endangered; harriers are threatened.

In addition to the IBA, the New York DEC maintains the 478-acre Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area. From December 1 to April 15, part of the wildlife management area is closed to visitor access to protect wintering Short-ears and other raptors.

The Grassland Bird Trust preserves another 78 acres in its nearby Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland Bird Viewing Area. Grassland birds benefit humans in a variety of ways, says LaFond, including controlling rodents that damage crops or carry diseases.

“When field mice increase so as to become veritable plagues, various owls, especially of this species [Short-eared Owl], have been known to congregate in the infested region and to have done great service in destroying the pests,” wrote Charles Wendell Townsend in a chapter of Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, a 1930s Smithsonian Institution volume by Arthur Cleveland Bent. “Such a plague of mice is described as occurring in South America in 1872-73, when Short-eared Owls were the most important agents in stopping the plague.”

Short-eared Owl perches on a wildlife management area sign at New York’s Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area. Photo by Gordon Ellmers
A Short-ear perches on a wildlife management area sign at New York’s Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area, a popular wintering site for the species. Photo by Gordon Ellmers

The main event

The Washington County Grasslands are among a smattering of places where wintering Short-eared Owls gather in large numbers, thanks to an abundance of meadow voles — perhaps hundreds to thousands per acre, researchers have estimated. Little Theater on the Farm is surrounded by miles of grasses such as reed canary, orchard, and brome: prime habitat for voles and owls.

In summer, Short-ears nest on the ground in knee-high grasses across the northernmost parts of North America, especially in prairie regions. In winter, they’re attracted to areas with grasses that are at least a foot high.

Along with the owls of winter, parka-clad birders and photographers flock to the Washington County Grasslands. The owners of Little Theater on the Farm kindly allow owl watchers to park on their property. They require that the Short-ears aren’t disturbed. On a February evening, 15 people wait, bundled in hats, gloves, and snow boots, for the owl show.

Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers are the opening acts, searching for voles from perches (Rough-legs) and on the wing (harriers). Both dark- and light-morph Rough-legs frequent the grasslands. “These chunky, long-winged hawks always seem to find the tiniest branches at the tops of trees and shrubs to perch on and look out over open country,” says Christina Hoh, a DEC wildlife biologist. Harriers, the females dark brown and males slate gray, hover over dry, bent winter grasses.

As the sun sinks toward the horizon, Rough-legs and harriers disappear. The stage is set for the main event. All at once, as if prompted, nine Short-eared Owls fly straight up from grassy hummocks. Their graceful, moth-like flights crisscross as they cartwheel across the fields hunting for hapless voles. Every so often, an owl “barks,” the Short-ear’s distinctive call.

Suddenly, a small dark shape scurries across the snow, doubling back on its tracks. To the human audience, it looks like a sure bet the vole will be an owl’s dinner. But the Short-ear doesn’t always win. The vole escapes into a tunnel in the snow, finding safety in the subnivean zone that lies just below the surface. The next vole, however, isn’t as lucky, and the owl flies off with dinner in its talons. The scene is repeated countless times every evening.

In some locales, Short-eared Owls are so numerous they festoon barebranched trees like holiday ornaments. “In certain spots, you might find a dozen, in others, well upward of 40,” says Denver Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Montana. Where voles are abundant, according to DEC biologists, the owls may form large communal roosts of up to 200 birds in sites from grassy tussocks to abandoned quarries. In decades past, 40 or more owls were evening regulars at the Washington County Grasslands.

One winter 15 years ago, “Short-eared Owls were everywhere,” remembers Don Polunci, past-president of the Southern Adirondack Audubon Society. “I counted 42 in the grasslands in one afternoon. They were perched on fenceposts, snowbanks, hay bales, and utility poles. They were in the trees, on buildings, and on farm machinery. When they weren’t perched, they were hunting over the fields.”

Now that number reaches 20 to 25 on a good day, say most Washington County Grasslands owl-watchers. Polunci’s personal high count in the winter of 2020-21 was 21 owls.

Wintering Short-eared Owls have guarded the grasslands for a quarter-century or longer, something Marcelo del Puerto, a DEC wildlife biologist, says is surprising. Site fidelity, as del Puerto refers to the owls’ long tenure, for this length of time is uncommon, although not unheard of. Holt says that as long as the owls can find enough voles, they will return winter after winter.

Every two weeks, DEC biologists conduct raptor surveys in the Grasslands, focusing on Short-ears and harriers to learn more about their behavior and distribution, habitat preferences, and the amount of grassland they need. The goal of the surveys is to develop management plans for the birds and the habitat on which they depend.

A Short-ear sets off in search of prey at the Washington County Grasslands. Photo by Denise Hackert-Stoner/Naturelogues
Fifteen years ago, one birding regular at the site tallied as many as 42 owls in a day. Last winter, his daily high count was 21 owls. Photo by Denise Hackert-Stoner/Naturelogues

An unnoticed downward trend

A widely distributed species, the Short-eared Owl is found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, as well as on islands, including Iceland, the Greater Antilles, the Galápagos, and Hawaii. Denizens of tundra, meadow, salt marsh, and other grassy expanses, Short-ears are also known as bog owls, swamp owls, and farm owls.

The birds may not be called farm owls much longer. As more and more farmers roll up their hay bales for the last time and turn to other ways of making a living, a succession of shrubs and trees takes over the farmlands. The agricultural grasslands ultimately turn into forests.

Grasslands are maintained by practices such as hay production and livestock grazing. “The long-term decline in agriculture and subsequent abandonment of farmlands in New York has led to habitat succession from grasslands to shrublands to woodlands, making it unsuitable for grassland birds,” says a report on the owls by DEC biologists Theresa Swenson and Glenn Hewitt.

“As land use practices have changed, grasslands have become one of the most imperiled habitats throughout New York, the Northeast, and much of North America,” according to Swenson and Hewitt. “Development, fragmentation of habitat, and changes in agricultural practices, including conversion to row crop and early mowing, have contributed to grassland declines.”

Confirms Holt, “The loss of grasses is a major factor in the decline of Short-eared Owls. The worst thing for the owls is when farms are sold for housing developments.” Land conservation efforts by the DEC, the Grassland Trust, and the IBA are helping preserve Washington County’s grasslands, says La Fond.

‘No large-scale or coordinated research and management programs are in place that attempt to understand, slow, stop, or reverse’ the owl’s decline.

Worldwide, the Short-eared Owl is rated a species of “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The organization notes, however, that numbers of the owls have significantly declined in North America over the last 40 years: a 71.2 percent decrease. The population trend is not rapid enough, however, to approach the threshold for a listing as “Vulnerable,” the IUCN states.

Other findings suggest more dire circumstances. “Short-eared Owls are experiencing substantial, widespread, and ongoing declines in North America,” write Travis Booms of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Denver Holt, and their colleagues in a 2014 paper published in The Journal of Wildlife Management. “Short-eared Owl conservation concerns have gone almost unnoticed, however. No large-scale or coordinated research and management programs are in place that attempt to understand, slow, stop, or reverse this decline.”

Throughout North America, Short-eared Owls and other grassland species need better protection, the researchers say. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Short-eared Owl is a state-endangered species, mostly a result of habitat loss. Pennsylvania once had extensive farm fields; many have become townhouse complexes.

Northern Harrier. Harry Collins Photography/Shutterstock
Northern Harrier is another raptor found at the grasslands — and many other places where Short-ears occur — in winter. Photo by Harry Collins Photography/Shutterstock

Trading places

The Short-eared Owl rules the grasslands at dusk and dawn, but at high noon, its alter ego, or ecological equivalent, is king or queen of the fields. The Northern Harrier, once known as the marsh hawk, hunts for voles and other small rodents in daylight.

Both raptors have large facial disks — feathers around their eyes shaped like inverted satellite dishes — the better to funnel sound from rustling voles to their ears.

“Short-eared Owls take the ‘second shift’ of rodent hunting when harriers go to their night roosts,” says Gordon Ellmers, a veterinarian who lives near the Washington County Grasslands and photographs owls and hawks all winter. The raptors don’t always change shifts quietly, however. By dusk, skirmishes may erupt between late-hunting harriers and early-arriving owls. Most of the fights are over a meal.

The late biologist and harrier expert Frances Hamerstrom witnessed more than 20 such encounters in Wisconsin grasslands. “A harrier attacked a Short-ear 12 times, a Short-ear attacked a harrier seven times, and in five encounters, I couldn’t tell who picked on whom,” she wrote in Harrier, Hawk of the Marshes: The Hawk That Is Ruled by a Mouse.

On one late afternoon as I watched at Little Theater on the Farm, owls and harriers patrolled the fields in a kind of owl-hawk détente.

Short-eared Owl at sunset in Quebec. Photo by Jim Cumming/Shutterstock
A Short-ear hunts over a field at sunset in Quebec. In winter, the species is most often observed around dusk when it hunts grassy fields for small rodents. Photo by Jim Cumming/Shutterstock

Sky-dancing Owls

Nightfall eventually drives harriers to ground and birders back to their vehicles. Outside the cars’ windows, the last owls visible in the waning light course from field to field.

“The flight of the Short-eared Owl is one of the most graceful of any owl or, for that matter, of any bird,” says Holt. Shorteared Owls come out at sunset, says one observer on this February night, not only to hunt but to “sky-dance.”

In February, the spectacle ends early. Twilight, that time of Short-eared Owls, soon turns to night. But somewhere in the grasses, the owls wait for the next twilight — the one that happens at dawn.

Three Short-eared Owls perch on a tree stump in winter in Indiana. Photo by Tony Campbell/Shutterstock
Three Short-eared Owls perch on a tree stump in winter in Indiana. In fall and winter, the species may roost in groups, typically in the range of 20-30 birds. Photo by Tony Campbell/Shutterstock

Where to find Short-eared Owls

At dusk in winter, Short-eared Owls appear over grasslands around the world. As if on cue, they emerge at twilight, the time when rarely seen creatures come out of the shadows. While most owls hunt by night, Short-ears listen for their prey — small mammals like meadow voles — at dusk and dawn. It’s called crepuscular hunting.

The name Short-eared Owl implies that the species has shorter ears than other owls. In fact, owls don’t have external ears. Their “ears” are tufts of feathers on the tops of the birds’ heads that have nothing to do with hearing. Short-ears’ tufts are just shorter than those of other owls.

In autumn, Short-eared Owls fly south from North America’s northern reaches, arriving in more southerly grasslands around the time of the winter solstice. They stay through the season, then return north by the spring equinox, says biologist Denver Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Montana. Holt has studied Short-eared, Snowy, and other owls for more than three decades.

In the grasslands where Short-ears winter, they’re more easily observed than their woodland-dwelling kin. “Wherever there are wide fields with good prey and snow that’s not too deep,” says Holt, “look for Short-eared Owls.”

This article was first published in the January/February 2022 issue of BirdWatching Magazine.

Wintering owls are back. Let’s give them space and respect.

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Cheryl Lyn Dybas

Cheryl Lyn Dybas

Cheryl Lyn Dybas is an ecologist and science journalist and a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers. She often writes about birds and their habitats. Her work has appeared in such publications as Canadian Geographic, Ocean Geographic, Scientific American, and BBC Wildlife. She has been a featured speaker on science journalism and conservation biology, and serves on the committees of several international scientific societies.

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