Short-eared owls put on a daily show

Short-eared owls put on a daily show

Certain members of the animal kingdom seem to have been created with the full intent of making people fall in love with them. Owls fit that characterization perfectly. The rounded head, flat face and conspicuously large, forward-facing eyes appear almost human-like at a glance. Aside from the duck, which beats the owl to the punch as kids work their way through the alphabet, I’d bet the owl is easily one of the first birds a young child can correctly identify, mimic the call of and even spell correctly. The night-hunting nature of most owl species adds an extra layer of mystery and intrigue to a life story imagined by many but witnessed by few.

I’ll admit I’ve been an owl junkie from an early age, and I can almost guarantee my grandsons will suffer from the same malady. The interesting thing about the world’s love for owls is the majority of fans spend their lives having never experienced an in-person, in-the-wild sighting. Referring back to that night-hunting nature, owls aren’t often spontaneously “happened upon,” as is the case with many of their fellow raptors that are active throughout the day.

Fortunately, there are at least a few species that if not entirely contrary to the night-hunting habit, spend a portion of their waking hours hunting in the light of day. The snowy owl, that great, white hunter of the northern tundra, makes no effort to hide from the sun when it makes an occasional foray into our area. Yet another much more conspicuously day-active species has been wintering here in Ohio over the past several weeks, and it seems content to put on a show.

The short-eared owl, another summertime resident of the North Country, has been making a winter home in Ohio for the past several years, arriving as the freeze settles into the tundra and food supplies dwindle under pressure of predation. In a joyful bonus for the birder, the stunning brown and white birds tend to run in family groups or flocks that make the odds of spotting them considerably better. Furthermore, their habit of becoming especially active and animated in the hours just before sunset and just after sunrise makes spotting and properly identifying the birds exponentially easier.

Almost comically bat-like in their flight, the bird’s nearly 4-foot wingspan and low-flying hunting technique make for an easy preliminary identification, even from a great distance. The main driver in both the owl’s presence in our area and its habit of roaming the crepuscular hours around dawn and dusk is an abundance of small rodents — particularly the omnipresent meadow vole — in the pastures, grasslands and hay fields of rural Ohio.

My wife and I caught up to a gathering of at least six individual short-eared owls as they hunted a pasture in Eastern Wayne County a week ago, and the show was spectacular. If left undisturbed, the birds will likely remain throughout the winter as long as the food supply remains ample. If you should happen upon their show, please be mindful to keep your distance from the birds and be respectful of the private property over which they are likely to be flying. To watch a wild bird is a priceless joy. To destroy the opportunity for others is a preventable tragedy.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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