Here in Brazoria County we have four species of breeding owls which can be seen during any time of the year. These include Barred Owl, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl. In the winter we often get an influx of another kind of owl, the Short-eared Owl. This is a bird of the open grasslands and is one of the most widely distributed owls in the world. They are found not only in North America but also in South America, Eurasia and many oceanic islands. Their breeding range extends into the U.S. only to the northernmost states though and thus they are only found in Texas during the winter. Interestingly enough, South American Short-eared Owls do not migrate and are found in the same areas year round.Short-eared Owls are medium sized about the same size as a Barred Owl and are mostly mottled brown. They have bright yellow eyes which you can see if you happen upon one perched and manage not to spook it. They roost on the ground in fields with tall grass and so are often spooked from their roost by roaming cows or humans. If you don’t manage to see one that way, the best way to watch for Short-eared Owls is to find a field where Northern Harriers, a field hunting raptor, are hunting during the day. That is an indication that the field has a lot of small rodents which is what Short-eared Owls like to eat. At dusk, after the Northern Harriers go to bed (they also roost on the ground), the Short-eared Owls will begin to hunt over the field. They have a very distinctive floppy kind of flight that is easy to recognize once you’ve seen it a couple of times and they will fly over the field watching for small rodents. When they find one, they will drop to the ground feet first and grab it. Short-eared Owls are rarely alone so if you see one watch for more.
Of course, the name of this bird is somewhat of a misnomer as it is for all of the “eared” owls. Yes, owls have ears but these birds are named for the feather tufts that stand up from their head that look like ears but aren’t. Their real purpose is to help camouflage the owl when it is sitting in a tree. They help it to blend in to the trunk or branches and they are quite effective. Since Short-eared Owls only occasionally sit in trees, they don’t need long ear tufts like Great Horned or screech-owls. Their tufts are designed more for ground camouflage.
This winter there are several Short-eared Owls at the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge and they can be seen at dusk along the Moccasin Pond Loop Road. They can also be seen at dawn but really, who wants to get up that early?! Farther north on the Katy Prairie in west Houston, Short-eared Owls are being seen this winter too so if you happen to be in that area, watch for them.
Article by Sue Health, Avian Conservation Biologist at GCBO.