Species Profile

Short-eared Owl

Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
Taxonomy Group: Birds
COSEWIC Range: Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador
COSEWIC Assessment Date and Status Change: May 2021
COSEWIC Status: Threatened
COSEWIC Status Criteria: A2bc+4bc
COSEWIC Reason for Designation: The Canadian population of this widespread nomadic owl breeds in open grassland, tundra, and wetland habitats in all provinces and territories, and winters in southern Canada and the United States. The use of new atlas-based population estimation procedures suggests that the size of the Canadian population is about 31,000 mature individuals, roughly 10% of previous estimates. Its numbers vary over space and time in response to cycles in the availability of small mammals—its main prey. This adds uncertainty to estimates of the rate of decline in the Canadian population. Data from both the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Counts indicate a decline of more than 30% over the past three generations. The Canadian population is projected to continue to decline because of future threats, including reduced availability of nesting and wintering habitat resulting from crop conversion, agricultural intensification, urbanization, and invasive plants. In low Arctic habitats, increased growth of shrubs as a result of climate warming (shrubification) will further reduce prey availability and increase predation risk.
COSEWIC History of Status Designation: Designated Special Concern in April 1994 and April 2008. Status re-examined and designated Threatened in May 2021.
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Special Concern
Date of Listing (yyyy-mm-dd): 2012-06-20

Please note that this information is provided for general information purposes only. For the most up to date and accurate list of species listed under the Species at Risk Act, please see the Justice Laws Website.

Go to advanced search

Quick Links: | Photo | Description | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | Other Protection or Status | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl Photo 1

Top

Description

The Short-eared Owl has a large, round head, with small tufts of feathers that look like ears. This medium-sized owl measures approximately 34 to 42 cm in length. It has fairly long wings and a short tail. Adults have a brown back and creamy-buff chest with brown streaks. Sexes are similar in appearance, but females are slightly larger and tend to be darker. Juveniles resemble adults, but their plumage is somewhat more buff in colour. With its sober coloration, which acts as excellent camouflage, the Short-eared Owl is conspicuous only when it flies, often at dawn and dusk. It can easily be identified by its irregular flight, which resembles that of a foraging moth. It is characterized by deep wingbeats, occasional hovering, and a habit of skimming patches of grassland or marsh.

Top

Distribution and Population

The Short-eared Owl is a bird that breeds on many continents and islands. In North America, it breeds sporadically in arctic areas, coastal marshes and interior grasslands, where voles and other small rodents proliferate. The Short-eared Owl breeds in all of Canada's provinces and territories, but is most frequently found in the Prairie provinces—Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba—and along the Arctic coast. It generally heads southward in the winter and is found in open habitats along the extreme southern coast of British Columbia and in southern Ontario. It is also occasionally seen in coastal areas of Atlantic Canada or in the Prairie provinces, where the number of wintering individuals fluctuates significantly from one year to the next. It is believed that the owls that breed in the Prairie provinces travel south in winter and spend winter mainly in the Great Plains of the United States. The nomadic nature of the species makes it difficult to quantitatively assess population trends. In 2008, the Canadian population was estimated at 350 000 birds. Christmas Bird Count data suggest that the number of Short-eared Owls has declined at a rate of about 3% per year over the past 40 years, including a 23% decline over the past decade alone. Despite a recent increase in the Short-eared Owl population of the United States Great Plains grasslands, where a large number of these owls winter, there has been no notable increase in the breeding population in Canada.

Top

Habitat

The Short-eared Owl makes use of a wide variety of open habitats, including arctic tundra, grasslands, peat bogs, marshes, sand-sage concentrations and old pastures. It also occasionally breeds in agricultural fields. Preferred nesting sites are dense grasslands, as well as tundra with areas of small willows. While the Short-eared Owl has a marked preference for open spaces, the main factor influencing the choice of its local habitat is believed to be the abundance of food, in both summer and winter. Suitable breeding, migration and wintering habitat has declined significantly throughout the 20th century, resulting in a reduction in the number of owls.

Top

Biology

The Short-eared Owl is a nomadic bird, and most individuals in the species wander widely both seasonally and annually. However, owls on islands appear to show higher fidelity to breeding sites. They group together in areas where prey populations are high. Unlike other owls, the individuals of this species build new nests instead of using abandoned ones. Only the female builds the nest, which typically consists of a single hole dug in the ground, lined with grass and a few feathers. Canadian populations generally raise a single clutch per year. If nests or eggs are destroyed, females will produce a second clutch. Between late April and early June, the female lays an average of four to seven eggs. Clutch size is directly related to prey abundance. The female incubates the eggs by herself for an average of 27 days, while the male guards the nest and brings the female food. Even before they can fly, nestling owls disperse short distances from the nest, hiding in nearby vegetation. Although its diet consists mainly of voles, the Short-eared Owl also feeds on a variety of small mammals, including shrews, pocket gophers, mice, kangaroo rats and lemmings. Many mammals, including foxes, skunks and feral cats and dogs, are predators of the eggs and nestlings. Avian predators include the Great Horned Owl, Snowy Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, Northern Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, Herring Gull and Common Raven. The species seems to be sensitive to human activity during the egg-laying and incubation stages, since females typically desert the nest if disturbed during this period.

Top

Threats

Loss and alteration of habitat, especially coastal marshes and grasslands that were formerly heavily used by wintering owls, as well as grasslands of the Canadian Prairies and in southern Ontario, constitute the primary factors affecting Short-eared Owl populations. The disappearance of these habitats is mainly attributable to wetland drainage, urban development and increasing farm activity. Widespread and intensive livestock grazing occurs over much of the remaining pastures on the Canadian Prairies. This factor is a direct threat to Short-eared Owl habitat, as tall grasslands are typically preferred nesting sites for this species. In areas where the Short-eared Owl breeds amid crop fields, mowing and harvesting of hay and grains can be a significant source of egg and nestling mortality. Greater nest predation as a result of habitat fragmentation may also constitute a threat to the species. A decrease in the abundance of prey as a result of habitat changes, as well as the collision of adults with vehicles, utility lines and barbed-wire fences, may also contribute to population decline. Although elevated concentrations of pesticides, particularly organochlorines, have been detected in Short-eared Owl eggs, the effects of these contaminants are not yet well known.

Top

Protection

Federal Protection

The Short-eared Owl is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

The Short-eared Owl is protected under a large number of provincial wildlife protection acts (e.g. Ontario's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act and Quebec's Act Respecting the Conservation and Development of Wildlife). Legislation in most Canadian provinces prohibits the hunting, possession and selling of this species.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

Top

Other Protection or Status

In Canada, the Short-eared Owl is not protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994. It is, however, protected under the United States’ Migratory Bird Treaty Act when found on American soil. This Act prohibits the harming of birds, their nests or their eggs.

Top

Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

15 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Short-eared Owl (2008-11-26)

    This owl has suffered a continuing population decline over the past 40 years, including a loss of 23% in the last decade alone.  Habitat loss and degradation on its wintering grounds are most likely the major threat, while continuing habitat loss and degradation on its breeding grounds in southern Canada and pesticide use are secondary threats. This species nearly meets the criteria for Threatened status.

Action Plans

  • Multi-species Action Plan for Grasslands National Park of Canada (2016-07-05)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Grasslands National Park of Canada applies to lands and waters occurring within the boundaries of Grasslands National Park of Canada (GNP). The plan meets the requirements for action plans set out in the Species At Risk Act (SARA s.47) for species requiring an action plan and that regularly occur at this site. Measures described in this plan will also provide benefits for other species of conservation concern that regularly occur at GNP.
  • Multi-species Action Plan for Gros Morne National Park (2016-03-29)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Gros Morne National Park of Canada is a SARA action plan (SARA s.47) for Piping Plover (melodus subspecies), American Marten (Newfoundland population), and Red Crossbill (percna subspecies). The plan also outlines measures to monitor and manage 11 other species of conservation concern that regularly occur in the Park. This plan applies only to lands and waters occurring within the boundaries of Gros Morne National Park.
  • Multi-species Action Plan for Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada (2018-08-01)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada applies to lands and waters occurring within the boundaries of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (GINPR). The plan meets the requirements for action plans set out in the Species at Risk Act (SARA (s.47)) for species requiring an action plan that regularly occur at this site. Measures described in this plan will also provide benefits to other species of conservation concern that regularly occur at GINPR.
  • Multi-species Action Plan for Kouchibouguac National Park of Canada and associated National Historic Sites of Canada (2016-11-22)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Kouchibouguac National Park of Canada and associated National Historic Sites of Canada applies to lands and waters occurring within the boundaries of the four sites: Kouchibouguac National Park of Canada (KNP) and other land managed by Parks Canada in the Northern New-Brunswick Field Unit offering adequate habitat for the species targeted in this action plan (Fort Beauséjour – Fort Cumberland National Historic Site of Canada (NHS), Beaubassin – Fort Lawrence NHS, Grand-Pré NHS). The plan meets the requirements for action plans set out in the Species at Risk Act (SARA) (s.47) for species requiring an action plan and that regularly occur in these sites. Measures described in this plan will also provide benefits for other species of conservation concern that regularly occur in KNP and associated NHS.
  • Multi-species Action Plan for Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada (2017-08-24)

    Backed by the Insular Mountain Range of Vancouver Island and facing the open Pacific Ocean, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada (Pacific Rim NPR) protects and presents the rich natural and cultural heritage of Canada's west coast. Pacific Rim NPR consists of three distinct units, the Long Beach Unit, Broken Group Islands Unit, and West Coast Trail Unit, each offering a range of unique visitor experiences. With significant areas (51,216 ha in total) of old growth, temperate rainforest, coastal dune systems, wetlands and foreshore, and marine habitats, the park demonstrates the interconnectedness between land, sea, and people. These natural wonders are interwoven with the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations culture (past and present), and that of European explorers and settlers.
  • Multi-species Action Plan for Point Pelee National Park of Canada and Niagara National Historic Sites of Canada (2016-07-05)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Point Pelee National Park of Canada and the Niagara National Historic Sites of Canada applies to lands and waters occurring within the boundaries of the two sites: Point Pelee National Park of Canada (PPNP) and the Niagara National Historic Sites of Canada (NNHS). The NNHS is being used as a term to collectively refer to two locations in the Niagara region that consist of three National Historic Sites: Fort George National Historic Site, Battlefield of Fort George National Historic Site, and Butler’s Barracks National Historic Sites of Canada. The plan meets the requirements for action plans set out in the Species At Risk Act (SARA s.47) for species requiring an action plan and that regularly occur in these sites. Measures described in this plan will also provide benefits for other species of conservation concern that regularly occur at PPNP and at NNHS.

Management Plans

  • Management Plan for the Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) in Canada (2018-10-04)

    The Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for the Parks Canada Agency is the competent minister under SARA for the Short-eared Owl and has prepared this management plan as per section 65 of SARA. To the extent possible, it has been prepared in cooperation with the following as per section 66(1) of SARA. Parks Canada Agency Department of National Defence Governments of the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nunavut Tlicho Government Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board Nunavut Wildlife Management Board Sahtú Renewable Resources Board Wek’èezhìi Renewable Resources Board Wildlife Management Advisory Council (Northwest Territories)

Orders

  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessments Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Act (volume 145, number 23, 2011) (2011-11-09)

    His Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, hereby acknowledges receipt, on the making of this Order, of assessments conducted under subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada with respect to the species set out in the annexed schedule.
  • Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act (volume 146, number 14, 2012) (2012-07-04)

    The purpose of the Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act is to add 18 species to Schedule 1, the List of Wildlife Species at Risk (the List), and to reclassify 7 listed species, pursuant to subsection 27(1) of SARA. This amendment is made on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment based on scientific assessments by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and on consultations with governments, Aboriginal peoples, stakeholders and the Canadian public.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2007 - 2008 (2008-08-28)

    2008 Annual Report to the The Minister of the Environment and the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (CESCC) from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
  • COSEWIC Annual Report 2020 to 2021 (2021-10-12)

    Over the past year COSEWIC assessed a total of 66 wildlife species, of which 4 were assigned a status of Not at Risk. Of these 66, COSEWIC re-examined the status of 41 wildlife species; of these, 80% were reassessed at the same or lower level of risk. To date and with the submission of this report, COSEWIC’s assessments now include 826 wildlife species in various risk categories including 369 Endangered, 196 Threatened, 239 Special Concern, and 22 Extirpated (i.e. no longer found in the wild in Canada). In addition, 19 wildlife species have been assessed as Extinct, 62 wildlife species have been designated as Data Deficient, and 202 have been assessed as Not at Risk.

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act: Terrestrial Species (2009-01-30)

    As part of its strategy for protecting wildlife species at risk, the Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on June 5, 2003. Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species that receive protection under SARA, also called the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Please submit your comments by March 20, 2009 for species undergoing normal consultations and by March 19, 2010 for species undergoing extended consultations.

Recovery Document Posting Plans

  • Environment and Climate Change Canada's Three-Year Recovery Document Posting Plan (2016-07-06)

    Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Three-Year Recovery Document Posting Plan identifies the species for which recovery documents will be posted each fiscal year starting in 2014-2015. Posting this three year plan on the Species at Risk Public Registry is intended to provide transparency to partners, stakeholders, and the public about Environment and Climate Change Canada’s plan to develop and post these proposed recovery strategies and management plans. However, both the number of documents and the particular species that are posted in a given year may change slightly due to a variety of circumstances. Last update November 25, 2021
Date modified: