Spotlight Species: Short-Eared Owl
If you’ve been out birding at your local wetland reserve recently, chances are you’ve spotted a short-eared owl. This is one of the best times of year to see these beautiful creatures as numbers are being boosted by continental winter visitors over from Russia, Scandinavia and Iceland. It is difficult to estimate the number of breeding birds in the UK because they have such a vast range and their numbers can really seesaw based on populations of their favoured prey, short-tailed voles. Resident owls are found in much of northern and eastern England, west Wales and eastern Scotland, with summer visitors occupying central and western Scotland too.
You might be wondering how our short-ear got its name; in fact, you probably aren’t since it isn’t an especially cryptic one! As you might have guessed, it was named for the short ear tufts near the middle of the forehead which are very rarely seen, unless an individual is displaying aggression towards another owl, when the tufts will become bristled and more pronounced. As with all owls, their ear tufts actually have nothing at all to do with their hearing. We refer to them as ears because they are positioned where we normally see ears on mammalian species but in actual fact, an owl’s ears are much lower down on the sides of their heads and are hardly visible. The hearing ability of a short-ear is extremely well-developed. They have a prominent facial disc, edged in white, that helps to direct the sounds they hear allowing them to determine the exact location of their prey in the vegetation.
Short-ears have exceptionally sharp low-light vision as well, so they are not limited to only hunting in the day although, out of all British owl species, they are the most diurnal. However, having excellent night-vision means that nocturnal and crepuscular (one of my all time favourite words, meaning to hunt at dawn and dusk) hunting is possible and this broadens their chances of catching a meal. But what’s on the menu? As you would expect, small rodents are the flavour of the day and short-ears predominantly favour short-tailed voles. They have been known to relocate based on where the vole populations are highest. When voles aren’t abundant, other small rodents are predated and, on occasion, some birds up to the size of a thrush might be caught. Continental visitors frequent coastal areas in the winter and may hunt small waders and seabirds, including small gulls.
This owl has a specialist hunting technique that compliments their penchant for open spaces. They base themselves between low perches, flying between these while keeping an eye and ear out for rodent activity. When flying, they will stay very low, rising no higher than three metres above the ground and propelling themselves with alternating flapping and gliding, a technique known as “quartering”. Their broad wings, that can reach up to lengths of 110cm and are very large in relation to the size of their body, give them enough strength to hover, even in forceful winds, before dropping down feet-first on to their prey.
As I previously mentioned, estimated breeding numbers in the UK are unreliable because of constant fluctuation and a broad range of habitats. It is thought that numbers have certainly declined in the past decades; according to the BTO, the last estimates suggested between 750 and 3,500 pairs breed in the UK, mostly in northern England and Scotland. Their status on the British Bird Conservation list is amber. It will come as no surprise that, once again, declining numbers of these owls have been put down to human interference. A great number of meadows, inland marshes and coastal wetlands have been lost to housing developments over the years and these are precisely the kind of habitats that short-eared owls need. Not only do they hunt across these open spaces, they also nest in them; they are one of few owls to line their scrapes with vegetation and feathers, although ground-nesting does leave their eggs and chicks very vulnerable to predation.
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