Short shrifted

By Richard Leighton

That cute little fellow in the accompanying photograph is one of our interesting, but poorly known, animals that is being threatened. Many of his kind are having troubles right now as they try to court, mate, and nest. 

Let’s get to know him a little better before we consider the threat facing him. His name is one of the unusual things that makes him interesting: He’s a “short-eared owl” with a scientific name that means fiery horned owl: Asio flammeus

He’s definitely an owl. However, he’s not fiery and he doesn’t have short ears or horns. He has small tufts of feathers on top of his head that he can raise, but often doesn’t bother to do so. Some bird-naming authorities, who apparently had poor vision or imagination, determined that those tufts looked like little ears. (They probably used the same process to determine that the feather tufts on his much larger cousin, the great horned owl, looked like horns.) 

Short-eared owls are more short-bodied than short-eared; they grow to about 15 inches long, which is smaller than a mature American crow. Their courtship involves extraordinary “flight fights” by the male and female, including an occasional talon tangle. 

Perhaps most unusual (and maybe weird), the fast-flying male shows his appreciation of the female by making a barking sound and clapping his wings fast below his body as he whizzes by. This produces an odd sound somewhat like a drummer quickly striking his teak woodblock multiple times.

Short-eared owls prefer the openness of fallow (non-agricultural) fields and marshlands, where they can cruise at low heights at dusk and dawn looking for small mammals. They instinctively nest on the ground or in a low bush. If a human or other feared intruder gets too close to the nest, the female will use the old “injured bird trick” to try to lead the threat away from her eggs or young.

We’ve reached the time to discuss threats. The hunting and nesting habitats of short-eared owls are disappearing fast and so are the owls, according to bird census reports. At an increasing rate, the owls’ preferred areas are being bulldozed, planted, and/or sold for construction of residential or commercial sites. Maine has designated short-eared owls as “Threatened” and New York has deemed them “Endangered.” 

To protect them on agricultural land, Maine regulators called for the creation of a Best Management Practices guide “to minimize negative effects of cutting hay/silage during the grassland bird nesting season.” That was in 2016. I have been unable to find such a BMP. 

You should, at least, try to see one of these cute owls before they disappear from Maine.

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