There was great excitement on the Smithers Christmas Bird Count this year as several of the participants observed the beautiful short-eared owls hunting over the open snowy fields.
There were 11 official sightings, but I suspect maybe two observations were of the same birds. We have recorded the odd one on previous bird counts, but why so many this year?
In a previous article, I wrote about how the number of saw-whet owls might be higher in the current breeding season because of an increase in rodent prey due to the heavy spruce cone crop producing more seed for the rodents to feed on.
Well, the same is true for the short-eared owls which are known to congregate in numbers in areas where there are good winter hunting conditions.
This year was especially good for hunting as the snow had a slight crust but not so hard that the owls could not punch through it to catch the rodents.
The short-eared owls have long wingspans compared with the size of their body. When hunting they flap their wings slowly (like a moth or butterfly) as they cruise low across open grassland, alpine tundra, or open wetlands. They have excellent hearing and when they hear a rodent moving under the snow, they punch through the snow with their feet to grab the prey.
If the snow is too crusty, they move elsewhere in B.C.
They breed in the open in northern B.C. and I have encountered them in alpine grassy areas. Unfortunately, they also like to nest in hayfields around here where their nests are in danger of being chewed up by haying machines.
In breeding season, they tend to be crepuscular, flying in the late afternoon, early evening or after dark. In the spring or summer, they can often be seen perched on fence posts in the Bulkley Valley.
The males especially are very light-coloured underneath and as they rock from side-to-side hunting over the fields, they can appear almost white.
They have been mistaken for barn owls in the past, but the latter are strictly a southern B.C. species. The short “ears” are really tufts of feathers that are not always obvious and are used more to create the appearance of being larger when threatened, rather than helping with hearing.
Short-eared owls are one of the world’s widest-spread species as they are abundant throughout Europe, all of Canada and the U.S., as well as, parts of South America.
Unfortunately, their numbers are in decline due to loss of habitat.