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The Prairie Owl

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

hunting grounds with short-eared owls and are equally skilled at hunting. These two birds of prey compete directly for territory and food. Harriers will frequently harass short-ears, forcing the owls to drop the prey they catch.

The flight of short-ears appears buoyant and effortless due in large part to their long and graceful wings. With a wingspan of up to three and one half feet and a weight of a mere one-half to one pound, short-eared owls have what ornithologists call favorable "wing loading." This means lots of wing surface giving lift to a relatively small body, allowing the owls to fly and hunt for long periods at a time while using relatively little energy.Thanks to specially modified feathers, owls are capable of silent flight. The leading edges of flight feathers have an irregular or jagged edge which decreases turbulence and muffles the sound of air rushing over the wings during flight. This is no doubt an adaptation for greater stealthiness in hunting for prey since the owl relies heavily on hearing for locating and accurately striking at prey.

Unlike the ears of most animals, which are directly opposite from each other, an owl's ears, which are not related to the feathered tufts, are offset, or at different elevations on the head. This allows owls to hear a greater range of frequencies in three-dimensional sound, allowing them to isolate and locate the origin of sounds quickly.

Although short-ears typically hunt from the wing, I observed one hunting from a low perch two years ago while I was shooting photos for this article. I spent many evenings watching a small group of winter resident owls in a large CRP pasture in northern Callaway County.

In the dim light of the setting sun, a lone owl swooped low over the pasture and landed on a leaning weathered fence post a mere 20 feet away. I cautiously panned my camera in the direction of the owl. When I found focus, I felt more like the subject than the photographer. The owl's blazing yellow eyes glared down the barrel of my lens and into my storehouse of memories. He soon became distracted by something in the thick grass halfway between us. He stretched his neck and glared downward, then turned his head from side to side, using all of his senses.

After a couple minutes he pounced. As I pulled back from my camera eyepiece to see what was happening just a few feet away, I saw the owl flailing away at the turf with his lethal talons. Dead grass flew into the air. When the owl stopped, I could see a vole in its grasp.

The owl launched skyward, carrying about as much grass as vole. I hoped he'd land nearby and give me a chance for some rare predator-with-prey photos, but he slipped over the horizon and into the dusk. I got no photographs, but what a rich memory.

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