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The Short-Eared Owl has always been a winter resident of Kentucky, but beginning in the late 1980s, this species was found nesting on a large reclaimed mine site in Ohio and Muhlenberg Counties.
This 15-inch long bird, with a 38-inch wingspan, often can be observed in a Central Kentucky on open land at dusk and dawn and is our most aerial owl. You will notice them flying back and forth, hunting over pastures, hayfields and other grassy or weedy areas and have a habit of hovering.
While they are flying, you will see long narrow wings with a large head, and they can be active during daylight hours on cloudy days.
The Short-Eared Owl has indeed a wide range, which includes North and South America, Europe, Asia and other portions of the eastern hemisphere, except Australia.
In North America, it breeds from Baffin Island and Alaska south to New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Utah and central California.
This owl winters from Massachusetts, south Ontario, Montana and southern British Columbia, south to Florida, the Gulf Coast and Guatemala.
Some of the more northern Short-Eared Owls generally migrate down into Kentucky in December, in small loose flocks. However, the disappearance of grassland habitats has been causing steep population declines and they currently have an Endangered status in Kentucky.
So, in recent years, the wintering numbers that I have been seeing are growing fewer and fewer. That was before this past winter of 2010-2011.
That is when a good farming friend of mine, who lives on Hunter-Thompson Road in Shelby County, called me about a flock of about a dozen or so of these Short-Eared Owls.
He proceeded to tell me about a 17-acre alfalfa field, that because of the autumn drought, did not produce enough hay to be harvested at that time, but these owls were hunting this field, apparently for Meadow Voles.
This turned out to be such an interesting bird-watching experience.
First of all, after several trips, I was fortunate enough to see at least 16 Short-Eared Owls at one time. Not only that, but I discovered that somehow, whenever there is an area that has an abundant food supply, birds do communicate and not just the same species talking to each other.
Within a week or less, just by observing this alfalfa field, it was also obvious, that three or four Northern Harriers were also hunting this area. Now this alone, is not real unusual, because Northern Harriers (formerly called Marsh Hawks) and Short-Eared Owls are known to inhabit similar type terrain, one species during the day and the other one at night.
In addition however, hunting the same 17-acre field were a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks, a pair of American Kestrels, a flock of about 50 or so American Crows (all three of these species are year-around residents) and also at least one and maybe two Rough-Legged Hawks, which probably migrated down to Kentucky from the Arctic Tundra.
Short-Eared Owls rest and sleep during the day on the ground. The accompanying photograph depicts three of this wintering Short-Eared Owl flock, and with close observation you will notice small-feathered ear tufts that help give this owl, its name.
However, its actual ear openings are huge, mainly because their primary prey of mice are hidden in the grass, so the back and forth aerial hunting is primarily performed by hearing rather than by seeing.
Preceding the spring breeding season, the male Short-Eared Owl indulges in a spectacular aerial courtship in broad daylight. He ascends to a considerable height, uttering a repeated series of low-pitched “toots.” Finally, he draws his wings together beneath his body and dives, clapping or rubbing them together to produce a fluttering sound.
When it comes to nests, the Short-Eared Owl is one of only a few owls that actually construct their own nests, such as it is. Most species of owls use old abandoned nests of hawks, squirrels, crows and ravens, natural cavities, old woodpecker holes or manmade nest boxes.
This owl's actual nest is generally a slight depression in the ground. It is sparsely lined with grasses, weed stalks and feathers. Occasionally, it is just flattened vegetation on the chosen site or a slight hollow in sand, exposed or hidden by grass and weed clumps and rarely in an excavated burrow.
The female lays four to nine eggs, and she incubates mostly or entirely for 21 days. The male, however, will feed the mate on the nest. He should be useful for something.
If you would like to try to locate the Short-Eared Owl's nest, contact the Fish & Wildlife Resources Department in Frankfort and ask for directions to the Peabody Reclaimed Mine site in Muhlenberg and Ohio Counties.
If you would just like to view them in the wild, search open grassland at dusk or dawn as they hunt the land for their favorite prey, Meadow Voles, from December through February.
You will be provided with much enjoyment in the Great Outdoors!
To read more columns about birds by Horace Brown, visit www.SentinelNews.com. To order a copy of Brown’s 2012 Holey Birds Calendar, E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call 633-4754, 800-588-1449 or 747-0425 or write 527 Main Street, Shelbyville 40065 or 988 Catwalk Road, Bagdad 40003.