The Prairie Owl

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

For starters, they probably should have been named "prairie owls" rather than short-eared owls. That's because owls don't have external ears; short, long or otherwise. The features loosely referred to as ears are really tufts of feathers on the top of the head and have nothing to do with hearing. Further confusion arises from the fact that these ear-like tufts are so small and inconspicuous that they're not usually observed.

Other owls hunt at night, but short-ears hunt during the day. Owls lurk secretly in the forest, but short-ears prefer open prairies and marshes. Most owls nest in trees, but short-ears nest on the ground. Because of their diurnal habits and penchant for wide open spaces, they're more easily observed than their woodland dwelling cousins. They're also interesting and fun to watch.

Other aliases for the short-eared owl are bog owl, grass owl, meadow owl, swamp owl or even mouse owl. All of these colloquial names derive from the habitats the owls inhabit or the food they prefer, not from our misguided sense of bird anatomy.

Short-eared owls are found in North America, Europe and Asia, as well as in certain areas of South America. They truly are denizens of the prairie because they shun the forest in favor of the openness of vast acreages of high quality grass. They nest, hunt and roost in hay meadows and pastures.

In Missouri they are most often observed in winter, but they have nested sporadically in northern and southwestern counties. Most of our short-ears probably breed in the prairie states north and west of Missouri, and in Canada's prairie provinces.

Well known owls of Missouri, such as great horned, barred and screech, typically inhabit mostly forested areas. Less common but more closely related to the short-ear is the long-eared owl, which also prefers forests, typically coniferous stands. As the name implies, their ear tufts are more conspicuous.

Relatively little is known about the short-eared owl's breeding biology in Missouri due to the small number of nest records, but biologists speculate that more nesting occurs during years of high prey numbers. They also believe the Cropland Reserve Program (CRP) greatly improved potential for breeding in our state. Land enrolled in CRP was taken out of intensive farming practices for 10 years in favor of uses that reduced erosion and provided greater wildlife food and cover. This land provides a good winter home for both

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