Short-eared owls visit the Owsley family

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Kansas City
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CHILHOWEE Mo. _ After the Feb. 1 blizzard, Matt and Deanna Owsley noticed an uncommon sight in two cedar trees near their home -- a dozen or more short-eared owls gazing back at them.

A school bus rumbled past a few days later and the noise sent the owls flying back and forth over their snow-covered lane southwest of Warrensburg in Johnson County.

“The bus driver had to stop a couple of times coming down the lane because he was afraid he was going to hit them,” Matt Owsley said. “It was spectacular.”

Short-eared owls are open-country, grassland birds. They are somewhat unusual in the state, said Brad Jacobs, ornithologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). A few pairs may nest in Missouri each spring, but short-eared owls are usually mostly seen in winter as migrants from northern states, Canada or the Arctic.

“They’ve been there at our place the last three years,” Owsley said, “but never in these numbers.”

He estimates they often saw 10 to 15 owls roosting in their trees, maybe more than 20 during the peak when deep snow and bitter cold embraced the countryside. One day he drove down the lane and there was an owl sitting on almost every fence post.

Short-eared owls become communal in winter and roost together for protection and warmth, Jacobs said. For example, the Hi Lonesome Prairie Conservation Area near Cole Camp in some winters attracts about 40 short-eared owls to a roost site.

The owls can roost on the ground. But after heavy snows they will roost in trees. The trees in the Owsley yard are near cattle pastures and a large Conservation Reserve Program field with native prairie grasses.

Unlike other owls, short-ears prefer open country over woods, and they do not hunt at night but prefer to hunt in the early morning or late afternoon. They mainly eat rodents such as mice and rats found in fields and meadows.

“The last two winters have been incredible for seeing short-eared owls,” Jacobs said. “That’s because we’ve had a peak cycle in rodents. They move around to wherever the peak numbers are.”

Short-eared owls are graceful in flight with wing spans of three feet or more. They are a medium-sized owl standing 13 to 17 inches tall and weighing about a pound. The owl’s name comes from two tufts of feathers that sometimes stand up on the head, but those are not ears and not connected with hearing.

As snow melted away this week, the owls dispersed somewhat at the Owsley farm. But on Wednesday, six to eight Sshort-ears could be seen gliding low over the ground in search or prey or simply resting on the grass in a pasture.

Often when they owls visit Missouri in winter they stay in brush or cedar trees out of sight, Jacobs said.

“Most people never see them,” he said.

But the Owsley family has enjoyed an owl show they’ll long remember, with souvenirs, as the ground under the cedar trees is littered with gray “pellets” of undigested mice hair and bones. Sometimes the short-eared owls from the Arctic show little fear of humans, Jacobs said, thus the family’s close-up view.

“I pulled up in the driveway near the trees sometimes and just sat there,” Deanna Owsley said, “me looking at them and them looking at me.”