We are drawn to owls as symbols of wisdom, and also because some find them to be the “friendlier” of the birds of prey in the country. But, there is a species of British owl that isn’t that well known. There is a creature that flies around the moors and open land of parts of the UK that we barely see. It is also a bird in decline. So, the more we learn about it now, the better. What do these owls look like, how did they get their name, and where might we find them?
The Five Species Of Owl In The UK
There are five owl species in the UK, but some are much more familiar to the average birdwatcher than others. The Barn Owl is surely the most popular, with its ghostly shape as it hunts over farmland and its cute heart-shaped face. Then there is the Tawny that “twoos” at us from trees at the bottom of the garden. We may not see it all that much, but we know it is around. The Little Owl is also popular when it appears on our TV screens because it is the cuter little species popping up from abandoned buildings.
The Short Eared Owl is less well known because it doesn’t make it into popular culture quite so much. It is also much harder to spot because of its location and habits. The name is similar to that of the Long Eared Owl but they don’t look that much alike and live in a very different area. Still, it is a very interesting bird that owl-lovers should know more about.
What Does The Short Eared Owl Look Like?
The Short Eared Owl doesn’t look like the other four species, so it is quite distinguishable if seen out in the wild. The most important feature is the face. It has a facial disc that isn’t too dissimilar to that of the Barn Owl. But, the features within are more intense. The bird has bright yellow eyes that look even more striking against the black mask. Some birds say that it is as though the bird is wearing eyeshadow.
You get the sense you really wouldn’t want to be a vole on the other end of that glare. The rest of the plumage isn’t as dark. There is a mottled look to the feathers that aren’t unlike the Tawny Owl, but the tones are much paler. This makes more sense when blending in with the dry vegetation in their preferred habitat. The size of the owl is also similar to that of the Barn Owl.
Why Is It Called A Short Eared Owl?
The name Short Eared Owl seems a little strange when you see this creature. There is no clear ear at all. However, there are tufts of feathers that can become more prominent when erect. As these are shorter than the tufts of the Long-Eared Owl, it makes sense for this to be the Short Eared Owl. Still, the name “ear” isn’t all that accurate and does a disservice to the smart auditory feature of an owl.
These birds have a keen sense of hearing to help them hunt. Short-eared Owls are less reliant on this than other species because of their hunting habits. But, they still have those asymmetrical ears to pinpoint the location of the sound. This is important when searching for their primary food source, especially when there are young to feed.
Short Eared Owls Like To Hunt Over Open Land And Moors
These owls favour small rodents, such as voles, which live in open land. They will carefully hunt close to the ground on the lookout for movement and listening for signs. This quartering behaviour lets them cover the ground with ease. The voles are a great source of food for the adults but also any chicks during the breeding season.
During this time, the adults will have to put in twice as much effort to make enough kills. The birds are generally crepuscular, meaning they will hunt at dawn and dusk in low light. This is perfect for hunting unseen. But, they aren’t against hunting in the daytime if they have to. They are actually the most likely to do so of the five owls in the UK.
Another interesting thing about these birds is that they prefer a more nomadic hunting strategy. This means that they aren’t set on hunting in the same area if there isn’t much around. They can have a wide home range of around 200 hectares. Some will stick to a smaller 40 hectares if there is no need to travel, while others have extended this to as much as 875 hectares.
Nesting Habits Of Short Eared Owls
One of the interesting things about these Short Eared Owl nests is that they are on the ground. This is rare for owls but makes sense in this open ground. They can set up a simple nest in a depression in the ground, achieve enough cover in the rough vegetation, and not have to stray too far from food supplies. Suitable trees would be scarce if they were to choose to nest above the ground instead.
Sound of the Short-Eared Owl
This is a tactic shared by a lot of other species in these areas, such as wading birds that come inland to breed and game birds like grouse. Grouse moors have become a commonplace to see Short Eared Owls if you live in the UK. The open land and potential for food suit their feeding and nesting behaviours. You are more likely to see the birds in Northern England than in the south. However, living in a managed moorland area like this does come with risks.
This strategy is unusual for owls, who much prefer to be up in trees or holes in a building where they have a lot more protection. A tree cavity requires little to no work to build and maintain for warmth and protection from bad weather. Buildings like barns and abandoned industrial sites are perfect for Barn and Little Owls to hide away in.
Long-Eared Owls are completely different to their Short Eared cousins with their preference for nests in woodland. The Short Eared Owl actually puts the most effort into building and presenting a nest site out of these species, even if it is a pretty minimal arrangement of sticks in a depression in the ground.
There are risks to this behaviour, even if they are assured more cover as they feed their chicks. Ground nests are much easier to access if predators know that they are there. Corvids, gulls and foxes could all feed on eggs or nestlings if they come across them. The eggs are very nutritious and an owlet is a bigger meal than a lot of other chicks in the area. The Short Eared Owl has to work hard to protect and feed these chicks. Successful hunts aren’t guaranteed and there is also the risk of food being taken.
A possible strategy that can help these birds improve their chances of raising more chicks is through a protracted breeding season. The long time frame means that birds can wait until the time is right and aren’t competing for food with every other owl pair in the area. For example, you may have a pair settle down in March when there is a good population of voles and decent weather. Further upcountry, a pair may decide to hold off until as long as May in the hope of better circumstances.
Competition between Short Eared Owls And Hen Harriers
Another stunning bird of prey that lives in this habitat and nests on the ground is the Hen Harrier. These birds have an overlap in their diets where they will both take small mammals and birds. Ideally, there will be enough for everyone to get along fine. However, there can be competition when times are tough. In some cases, the birds will resort to a behaviour known as kleptoparasitism – the act of stealing food taken by another creature.
This behaviour isn’t uncommon in the wild when it takes less effort to swipe someone else’s kill than to make your own. Studies suggest the Hen Harrier is more likely to swipe food from the Short Eared Owl than the other way around, but both do happen. A more deadly form of competition comes when the other species decides to prey on the chicks of their competitor. Studies of Hen Harrier nests in Scotland show raids from Short Eared Owls, and there is the potential that Harriers will take an unattended owlet too.
The Relationship Between Short Eared Owls And Grouse Moors
Birds of prey are often persecuted on grouse moors out of fear they will take grouse chicks. Shots and poison intended for other species could be taken by the owls. Moorland burning at the wrong time of year can also damage nests and food supplies. Populations of Short Eared Owls can fare a little better further north in Scotland where wild moorland offer protection. Pairs can survive well in highlands and on islands.
Are All Short Eared Owls Are Resident To The UK?
You may also be surprised to know that not all of the Short Eared owls found in this country are residents. Some birds fly over here as migrants and there are reports – with photographic proof – of owls resting on oil rigs in the North Sea. It may not be easy to see these owls in the wild but they are a beautiful sight if you do.
What Are Your Chances Of Seeing A Short Eared Owl In The Wild?
Unfortunately, your chances are actually pretty slim these days and getting more so. The species has declined over the decade as they find it harder to survive in truly wild areas of the UK. There are fluctuations in population numbers where it can appear to be bouncing back. Also, the understanding of the plight of the bird has led to a greater desire to protect and conserve the species. So, there are hopes that they will increase in numbers with the right help in well-managed areas.
Still, this isn’t a bird you are likely to see on a fence post in a garden unless you live in the middle of nowhere. You will have to travel to these moorland areas to spot an owl and do so at the right time of time. Set yourself up nice and early in an area known to have a breeding pair and wait for a sign of movement in the early morning light.
These busy parents may be more inclined to stay out longer for a better view at this time of year. But, the breeding season also means you need to be even more considerate about where you go. Stick to paths and hides, where available, and don’t do anything that could spook the birds. A trip out to the moor like this with the right preparation could also allow for views of some other impressive species, such as the Merlin or Hen Harrier.
A good way to check for signs of owls on local moorland is to look for pellets. All owls produce pellets full of undigestible material from their prey. This includes bones and fur. A small rounded pellet with lots of vole fur and mammal bones beneath a fence post could indicate Short Eared Owls Feeding in the area.
The Short Eared Owl Is Just As Crucial To Our Countryside As The Rest
We may be drawn more to Barn and Tawny Owls through familiarity, but there is a lot to love about the Short Eared Owl. It is worth taking the chance to find one out in the wild if the opportunity presents itself. They are majestic hunters and a vital predator in these upland areas. They are striking birds with those facial features and that low quartering flight and will hopefully be a part of the landscape for a long time to come.
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