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The short-eared owl surveys the open fields and marshland, searching for mice

Photo by Carl Jappe

Running with Birds by Rebecca Pugh

If you are running by the marshes or grasslands, and you hear a hooting sound like “woop, woop, woop” — all on the same pitch: E above middle C — look for a medium-sized owl.

With dark-streaked wings and tail, eye markings like sunglasses, and a posture that says, “I own everything here and I have lived here for 60 million years,” you can identify it. You are running with short-eared owls.

The short-eared owl eats rodents: mice, rats, moles, lemmings, plus rabbits and bats. If these are in short supply, it switches to birds: shorebirds, songbirds, gulls.

If that doesn’t work, it tries to migrate to a new hunting spot with more rodents. 

Owls hunt in darkness. They have specialized eyes and asymmetrical ears. Their eyes are so large that they do not swivel; instead, the owl turns its head to see.

Large eyes allow for even low levels of light to assist in perception. Light passes through the owl’s cornea, hits the rod cells, reflects off the tapetum lucidum (behind the retina) and passes back across the rod cells, giving the rod cells two doses of light for processing information.

Even more important are the owl’s ears, which have evolved to be positioned on the owl’s head with one lower, one higher, so the owl can judge distances and heights as its brain calculates the movement of prey.

Even under snow, from many yards away, the owl can hear the movement of a rodent and knows where it is. The owl’s disc-shaped face also funnels sounds to its ears.

Short-eared owls are named for the tufts of feathers at the tops of their heads. These tufts are not actually related to their true ears.

Also, you can’t see these tufts sometimes. It got its name from before we had good binoculars, when birders would shoot a bird to be able to study it.

The oldest documented short-eared owl was four years, four months old. It was shot in California in 1970 after it had been banded in British Columbia in 1966.

The short-eared owl is listed as a common bird in steep decline, probably because it needs large tracts of open space for hunting.

As people seek to build homes and businesses in pristine nature, the short-eared owl’s habitat is diminished.

A good alternative is for humans to build businesses and homes in spaces already developed, not in fields and forests that are wild.

Rehabbing an old building is better for wildlife than cutting virgin ground. Renovating and reclaiming city spaces: this is a good strategy to expand human opportunity while still preserving quiet landscapes for wildlife.

Such a change in construction strategy does a favor for the short-eared owl.

So, if you are running through a field, and you see a mid-sized owl perched on a branch, its chest lighter than its back and streaks throughout, you can greet it quietly and leave it be.

Owls are shy and mostly nocturnal, and they do better if we leave them alone. Keep running! You are in the company of an ancient hunter, the two of you making your way through the landscape.


Rebecca Pugh, author of “Running with Birds,” is a storyteller, musician, and runner. Her training comes from the Mass Audubon Society, ornithologist Jim Berry, and her aunt, Pam Goff. Her research begins with “All About Birds” at the Cornell Ornithological Labs. You can read more of her columns here.

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