A true grassland species, the short-eared owl commonly resides in prairies west of the Mississippi River.
The owl does sporadically breed in Wisconsin and may overwinter in the state. The bird is a ground-nester, and research suggests that the owls orient their nests to maximize solar insolation in the cool summer mornings and limit the intense solar insolation of late afternoon. They can accomplish this by selecting sites with lower vegetation in the southeast and thicker vegetation in the northwest. Thus, patchy and variable grassland seems important to nesting success.
Its Latin name, Asio flammeus means “flaming.” It's an appropriate name describing the reddish plumage of the bird but also describes the sweeping fires necessary to maintain the bird's grassland habitat.
Short-eared owls are found throughout the world, on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. In Wisconsin, these owls often follow irruptions of meadow vole populations. According to this year's breeding bird atlas data, short-eared owls were restricted to blocks where the Greater Prairie-Chicken occurs. Some evidence suggests that these birds are on the decline, which is unsurprising given the drastic loss of grassland habitat across the continent.
Here at Faville Grove, however, the grassland is becoming expansive. Dozens of volunteers just helped plant about 40 acres of prairie on a neighbor's property, and we recently closed on another 96 acres adjacent to the sanctuary! Just a few days ago, we had reports of a short-eared owl hunting in the floodplain prairies. You can discern the owl in flight by its moth-like pattern. The owl is medium sized and can be seen hunting throughout the day, skimming the prairie. I've been looking for short-eared owls but have instead seen northern harriers which are perhaps residing for the winter. Harriers and short-eared owls share almost the exact same habitat and are known to fight over voles. Come visit Faville Grove and see these beautiful grassland species of birds as they utilize the diverse available habitats.
Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward
Photo by John Matthews