Short-eared owl: The "other" prairie owl
A red-tailed hawk, the most widespread soaring hawk (buteo) on this continent, is more likely to be seen in the open country than in the middle of forested habitat. Most buteos share this trait. One large hawk of the western Great Plains is so linked to prairie that it commonly nests on the ground - the ferruginous hawk. In the woods others predominate. Species like the accipiter group (eg. Cooper's hawk), broad-winged hawks and red-shouldered hawks are more tied to treed habitat.
This divide among diurnal raptors is evident even among our nocturnal ones. Most owls are forest-loving creatures and live their entire lives silently hidden among trees, but not all of them.
Every now and then I get messages from well-meaning individuals telling me of snowy owls sitting in their woodlots. As gently as I'm able, I explain that while very little in the natural world is impossible, this would be an extremely unlikely scenario. Snowy owls, you see, are tundra nesting birds and much prefer open habitats even in winter.
There's another owl species fairly common to our area with an extreme partiality toward openness, the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus). And like its much larger relative it can be readily seen hunting during daylight hours.
Except for Australia and Antarctica, short-eared owls are found worldwide in appropriate habitats. The bird has even made its way to many of the world's islands, including Hawaii. It's one of the most migratory of all the North American owls and can be found in impressive numbers at times. A friend recalls seeing a field with nearly a hundred short-eared owls near Harwood many years ago.
Short-eareds hunt on the wing by sound, listening for the slightest movement or squeak from voles or mice before descending into the grass with raised wings. In flight, the birds are easily identified even at a distance. Grondahl and Schumacher, in "Owls of North Dakota" (free from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department), describe them as having a "...distinctive mothlike, flopping flight."
It's sort of ironic that both the short-eared owl and the northern harrier fly and hunt similarly over the same habitat. Might this be an example of convergent evolution? After all, there is a distinct advantage to being able to float very slowly on long wings over heavy cover. A faster flight style would miss those fleeting feeding opportunities.
Short-eared owls are medium-sized owls (up to a foot and a half long) with beefy rounded heads - Pete Dunne says it "looks like a pale beer keg on wings." These are birds which blend well into the landscape with an overall tannish color replete with streaking. Its "ears," as the common name implies, are not readily visible most times. The owl's wingspan can be nearly 3 ½ feet which gives it a long-winged appearance in flight.
I recently got a secondhand report from a guy near Chaffee. He works for a farmer and claims to have seen a number of burrowing owls in recent years. While this may be the case - burrowing owls are prairie critters too - I have my doubts. Burrowing owls favor the drier habitats a few county lines to our west and don't become regular until you cross the Missouri River. Instead, I believe the fellow is seeing short-eared owls. They are close enough in size and color to confuse a person. Moreover, both birds are often seen on the ground.
Grand Forks County is considered the go-to spot to see numbers of short-eared owls in our area. Just west of town is a broad alkaline seep which runs many miles north-to-south. Often, in this grassy zone, hundreds of the birds can be seen.
Not near as much grass is found in Cass County, so the viewing here is limited but annual, especially in the fall. However, with our recent heavy snow whatever birds were in Cass County have likely left for better feeding grounds. Still, it's worth scanning the marshes and fields for this distinctive prairie owl.
Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications. firstname.lastname@example.org.