For the Birds Radio Program: Short-eared Owl

Original Air Date: March 2, 2005 Rerun Dates: March 17, 2006

How on earth did Short-eared Owls ever find their way to the Hawaiian Islands? Laura talks about the Short-eared Owl’s on the North American continent as well as on the Hawaiian Islands. A researcher is trying to track them in Wisconsin.

Duration: 3′49″


Short-eared Owl

Imagine being a land bird lost over the Pacific Ocean, flying and flying with nowhere to rest and nowhere to feed, flapping and flapping at least 2500 miles over endless water. If you were a Peregrine Falcon, a bird with powerful wings and the ability to occasionally soar, this might not be too hard, but you’re not a falcon, you’re an owl. Finally you spy some tiny islands off in the distance and come down to rest.

This is probably close to what happened to some Short-eared Owls long, long ago, and how they came to colonize the Hawaiian Islands. This wonderful species is known for being a nomad, and is the only species of owl known to have ever arrived on Hawaii on its own power. The only other species of owl found in Hawaii is the Barn Owl, which was introduced by people during the 1800s.

On Hawaii, you can see Short-eared Owls standing on rocky lava fields, but here on the mainland they are birds of extensive marshes and wet meadows—they seem to be something of the crepuscular and nocturnal version of Northern Harriers, and the two species even have somewhat similar faces. In winter, Short-eared Owls are fairly colonial—I saw my first group of them on January 29, 1976, on a farm field outside East Lansing, Michigan. Late each afternoon in January and February, four of them would suddenly materialize and swoop on delicate wings over the snow-covered fields. They took my breath away. That was within my first year of birding, and because I saw so many, I just assumed they were fairly common.

But since that lovely winter, I haven’t seen many Short-eared Owls. On Hawaii, they didn’t have any other owls to compete with. Here on the mainland, where there are many other owls fighting for the same prey, they are restricted by a rapidly dwindling habitat. It’s a red-letter day whenever I see one, and I fear these days will become fewer and fewer as time goes on.

That’s why I was delighted to learn about Dennis Haessly’s research on Short-eared Owls. He’s got a webpage with photos of a female on the nest—you can see her incubating and caring for her chicks, and he even has some night shots. There are links to his rich and informative website at my birderblog and on today’s program transcript.

In conjunction with his research, Dennis wants to hear from all birders who happen to see Short-eared Owls. He’s trying to get as accurate a picture of Short-eared Owl distribution in Wisconsin as possible, so he needs dates and precise locations of sightings, and needs to hear about repeat sightings as well. He’s focused on Wisconsin, but sightings of Minnesota and Michigan Short-eared Owls will also help him to flesh out his work. If you’re lucky enough to see one of these extraordinary birds, please share the information with Dennis. You can email him via my blog or transcript page, or send the email to me and I’ll forward it to him.