The Prairie Owl

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

short-ears and northern harriers, as well as bobwhites, turkeys and lots of other species.

Female short-eared owls build nests under a canopy of grass. They typically lay from four to 14 eggs, with an average of five to seven, over a period of about four weeks. Because incubation lasts about four weeks, the last egg laid will hatch three to four weeks later than the first. When food is scarce and hunting is poor, only the more robust, larger young may feed, and those that hatched later will starve or be eaten by their more mature siblings. Young are able to fly about four weeks after hatching.

In late autumn, birders trek to their favorite prairie meadows or pastures to see if the short-ears have returned to roost and hunt for the winter. Like most birds, short-ears are highly mobile and will seek regions with abundant food supplies.

Researchers gather information about the short-eared owl's feeding habits from regurgitated pellets found at winter roosts. They can identify prey species by closely examining undigested skulls and other bones. Voles (small, stocky short-tailed rodents) account for more than 90 percent of the short-eared owl's diet in some studies.

Vole population levels fluctuate over about a 4-year cycle, and high numbers of them can result in economic damage to small trees and crops. The appearance of a group of short-eared owls in the pasture should be welcomed as nature's way of keeping the vole population in check.

In excellent habitat with high prey populations, some winter roosts can contain up to 200 short-ears, but Missouri roosts are much smaller.

Suppertime for the owls begins in late afternoon as they take wing from their daytime roost in a dense, grassy swale. During times of deep snow, they will roost in trees. Once in the late 1970's, I found them roosting in a row of eastern red cedars for a few days until the snow began to melt.

On long wings, short-ears glide casually back and forth above their hunting grounds, watching and listening for a sign of a vole in the grassy expanse below. In an instant, an owl will turn abruptly, wheel and fold its wings and stoop on its prey. If successful, an owl remains on the ground, quickly killing and devouring its catch. It always swallows it whole and head first.

Northern harriers, formerly known as marsh hawks share the winter

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