Winter brings short-eared owls to county

See the tufts of feather on top of this owl’s head? Those provide a clue to its name: short-eared owl.

That is, if you can see these “ears.” More often than not, the tufts are not sticking up.

And, yes, there are long-eared owls, which, as you would expect, have longer tufts on their heads.

You’ll find short-eared owls in open areas such as flats and farmland in Western Washington, including Whatcom County, during their winter visits. Their summering grounds are in parts of Canada and Alaska.

“Short-eared owls occur in wide open spaces such as grassy fields or coastal areas, where they spot rodents in the grass with their keen eyes,” says Bellingham birder and photographer Barry Ulman. “Late afternoon to dusk is the best time to see them, though they may be seen at any time of day.”

They are mottled brown, with tan chests. Their eyes are yellow with dark patches around them. They have big, round heads. Their feet are covered in feathers.

Females are slightly larger than males and have darker backs as well as more of a rusty color on their chests.These medium-sized owls — they’re about 13-17 inches long with a wingspan of 33-41 inches — prefer to eat small mammals, especially voles, but have been known to prey on other birds.

They kill their meal with a bite to the back of the skull and then often swallow them whole.

Short-eared owls also are known for getting into squabbles over their hunting grounds with one particular bird.“Their habitat is shared with northern harriers, which hunt by day, and as ‘day shift’ gives way to ‘night shift,’ there are often territorial disputes between the harriers and the owls,” Ulman says.

Short-eared owls nest on the ground, specifically in a shallow scrape lined with grass and feathers. The female lays as many as eight eggs and incubates them for 24-37 days. While she’s nesting, the male brings her food. He’ll continue to do so while she cares for the hatched young.

Although the owls are one of the most widely distributed in the world — their range extends across North America, South America, Europe, Asia and numerous islands — there is some concern about their declining numbers. That dip in population includes Washington state, where the population has dropped quite a bit since the 1950s.

Conservation group Partners in Flight has listed short-eared owls as a species at risk and that development and agriculture are the biggest threats to the owls because of habitat destruction.

Sources: “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” by David Allen Sibley; Seattle Audubon Society at birdweb.org; Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.birds.cornell.edu; “Birds of Washington: Status and Distribution,” edited by Terence R. Wahl, Bill Tweit and Steven G. Mlodinow.