When one thinks of owls in the Bitterroot, I suspect most would immediately conjure up the unmistakable “hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo” of the great horned owl who is a year-round resident found throughout the Bitterroot Valley.
An evening walk down the Teller Trail next to Woodside Fishing Access will frequently provide a visual sighting of this large nocturnal predator. While most of us have heard or observed a great horned owl, many valley residents are unaware of another owl species who resides in the Bitterroot yet this owl occupies a much different habitat than their great horned cousin.
This species, a medium sized owl, known as the short-eared owl prefers large intact grassland habitat where they will spend the daylight hours nestled in the tall grass waiting for the evening to arrive. At that time, they take to the air with acrobatic winged maneuvers that position themselves for a dive onto an unsuspecting field mouse or vole.
Recently, while out looking at some of Teller’s wetlands that are surrounded by 16-inch stands of grass and sedge, I encountered over 25 of these ground dwelling owls.
Before I knew it, the owls were flying all around me with several clicking their beaks as a distress call, not wanting this intruder in their space. I slowly backed out of the area to witness several of the birds gently float back down to the grass covered floor and although several of them were within 25 yards their camouflage feather pattern immediately gave way to total concealment.
As I departed the area I could not help but notice scattered about the field, the numerous owl pellets, which owls regurgitate once they have processed the flesh of their prey to reveal a fur ball scattered with bone debris from the unlucky rodent(s).
Short-eared owls are year-round residents of Montana. Standing about 12-14 inches, the female is a bit larger with both exhibiting the dusky face mask with black facial feathers contrasting with a bright yellow eye.
In flight, the round tipped underwings display several black bars across the primaries. Their breast appears streaked with brown exclamation points against a beige background, while the back is dominated with brown feather.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, short-eared owls are one of the few owls that actually construct a nest by digging out a bowl shape nest and lining it with plant material and feathers. They typically lay about five eggs that hatch as blind and partially naked owlets. Growing quickly with a tremendous appetite, they keep the adults busy locating prey.
As with most owls these predators make little to no noise when they fly because their major flight feathers are velvet like and that allows the air turbulence created by flapping wings to be nearly silent.
In most birds of a similar size, such as a mallard duck, you can hear the swoosh of a wing beat if the bird passes within 20 yards. Not so with short-eared owls, as this feather adaptation allows the winged predator to fly silently over fields in search of prey.
The short-eared owls’ hunting methods are similar to another common valley raptor, the northern harrier. These two raptors avoid significant competition due to the time of day they hunt. While I was out on Teller that day, I saw both species covering the same field at about dusk, the short-eared owl was just beginning its hunt, and the Harrier was soon to call it a day.
From a conservation perspective, short-eared owl populations appear to be stable, although recent efforts to monitor their populations stems from a concern among avian scientists that habitat fragmentation, loss of grasslands across the owls range and climate issues may be leading to a long-term decline. Individuals interested in learning more about short-eared owl monitoring can find information at the Owl Research Institute, www.owlresearchinstitute.org.
Whether stable or declining, one thing is for sure, private lands conservation is a key component to providing intact grassland habitat in the west and properties like Teller will continue to benefit species like the short-eared owl.
Other areas where these birds can be observed in Western Montana include the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge and Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge south of Polson. Both of these areas contain the large tracts of un-fragmented grasslands these birds are dependent upon. Next time you see what appears to be an owl flying out in one of the Bitterroot’s many fields during daylight hours, don’t be surprised. Not all owls roost in trees or hunt strictly at night.
Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with Ravalli Republic readers. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.