Birds of the Hackensack:  Short-eared Owl

 

By Ivan Kossak

 

Once a common winter visitor to the Hackensack Meadowlands, the Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) is now reported infrequently in our watershed. Unlike most other owls that are typically found in wooded habitats, Short-eared owls are birds of open country such as marshes and fields. Therefore, it is not surprising that they would favor the grassy wetlands that border the lower part of the Hackensack River. However, it is because the owl’s food supply has greatly diminished that the birds are less numerous than in the recent past.

 

When various landfills in the Meadowlands were in operation and accepting household garbage, the rodent population in the area soared. As a result, with such an abundant supply of the Short-eared owl’s favorite food, the Meadowlands was a favored winter roost for the owls as well as for other raptors. In fact, the field work for a study of Short-eared owls in New Jersey by Thomas Bosakowski in the winters of 1981-2 and 1982-3 was primarily conducted in the Meadowlands.

 

Short-eared owls are among the least nocturnal of all owls. While they still favor nightime hunting, Short-eared owls can be seen prior to dusk emerging from weedy fields to cruise low over these fields in search of prey. The owls can be seen even earlier on overcast afternoons.  Because of these habits, Short-ears are one of the mostly easily observed of all owls. During the day, the owls may roost on the ground, on muskrat houses or on man-made items such as short poles or pilings. The owls will also occasionally “perch hunt” from these roosts. Their call has been described as a high nasal or raspy bark but they do not typically vocalize while wintering.

 

Short-eared owls are among the larger North American owls, measuring 15 inches in length with a wing span of 38 inches. They are tawny with bold streaking on the head and breast. The owl’s namesake “ears” are actually tufts of feathers that protrude from the bird’s forehead. In flight, the owls show a black patch on the underside of the wing but it is their low soaring flight that is most diagnostic.

 

Short-eared owls nest on the ground, incubating from 4 to 9 eggs. Clutch size is influenced by the abundance of food. Their breeding range includes the northern tier of the United States as well as virtually all of Canada. In winter, Short-eared owls can be found as far south as northern Mexico.

 

The first wintering Short-eared owls usually arrive in New Jersey in mid-October and will linger until early April. In New Jersey, most are found in coastal salt marshes but some frequent inland fields, as well. If you are in or near an open field near dusk, try scanning the grasses. You might be rewarded with your first glimpse of an owl.

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