Read owl about it: Spotting the endangered Short-eared owl during an Iowa winter

A Short-eared owl takes flight at Aldo Leopold Wildlife Management Area in Bremer County. Short-eared owls have impressive wingspans of roughly three feet. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN COHEN

If you happen to see a moth-like bird cruising low along a stubbly field during daylight hours this winter, be sure to (safely) stop and get a better look – you’ve likely just spotted an elusive winter visitor to Iowa, the endangered Short-eared owl.

This uncommon, majestic owl gets its name from the two very small feather tufts located on the top of its head, according to Tom Schilke, president of Prairie Rapids Audubon Society which serves the counties of Grundy, Black Hawk, Butler, Bremer, Buchanan, and Hardin by increasing knowledge and awareness of birds and birding.

But don’t be too concerned with identifying this crow-sized species by its ear tufts which often prove invisible to most observers. A Short-eared owl is more likely identified by its intense yellow eyes framed with black feathers staring out from a mostly white, circular face. The brown and buff streaked owl also sports a good deal of white on its belly and the underside of its wings.

Despite its endangered status, the Short-eared owl is still considered a fairly reliable winter visitor to Iowa – making its way down from its breeding range in Canada and the northern United States.

Unlike most owls, the Short-eared owl is a diurnal species meaning it is active during daylight hours, providing the average Iowan an opportunity to not just hear an owl, but see one, too.

A Short-eared owl perched on a tree limb in winter at Aldo Leopold Wildlife Management Area in Bremer County. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN COHEN

“It stays near or on the ground during the day sometimes perched on a fence post,” Schilke said. “They can be active any time of the day but are most often seen very early in the day, or more often near dusk swooping moth-like over fields looking for prey.”

Prey that includes mostly small rodents like voles, mice, shrews, and rabbits.

Taking a Sunday drive along rural rock roads that run past winter-quiet agricultural fields could indeed net an owl-eyed observer with a sighting but so could, strangely enough, a visit to an airport.

One of the best places to see Short-eared owls in eastern Iowa over the years has been the Eastern Iowa Airport located south of Cedar Rapids. The species has been spotted winter after winter perched on the airport’s tall fences surrounding the grassy fields that encompass the complex.

And while Short-eared owl numbers in Iowa are certainly not what they used to be due to habitat loss, sightings continue to happen across the state each winter including a sighting by this reporter just past the Tama County line near Garrison in early January. A Short-eared owl was observed flying low along E-36 before landing on a fence post near the road.

A Short-eared owl cruises moth-like near the ground at Aldo Leopold Wildlife Management Area in Bremer County. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN COHEN

But like so many bird species in our state, the endangered Short-eared owl could use our help, Schilke said.

“As more communities, counties, and private land owners commit to protecting and restoring grasslands and other important habitats some of our less common and threatened birds will become more common,” he said.

For more information on the Short-eared owl, refer to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website “https://www.allaboutbirds.org”>https://www.allaboutbirds.org. For help making Iowa’s communities into healthy ecosystems for both people and birds, visit the website https://birdfriendlyiowa.org

With roughly a month of winter left, there’s still time to catch a glimpse of this special Iowa visitor.

A Short-eared owl takes off from a fence post with a rodent meal in its mouth. PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM SCHILKE/P.R.A.S.