Watching out

The short-eared owl, which lives across the West, is experiencing population decline, according to scientists. A new multi-state research project hopes to learn more about their movements.

Top photo courtesy of Kathy Lopez, left photo courtesy of Neil Paprocki and right photo courtesy of Becky Lyle

The University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute is spearheading the Wyoming arm of a multistate effort to learn more about short-eared owls.

The Western Asio Flammeus Landscape Study is in its second year in Wyoming, in addition to seven other Western states. Each year of the study, citizen volunteers survey likely owl habitat to collect data about their condition.

“Evidence has shown that short-eared owls are experiencing a long-term decline throughout their range, and the cause of their decline isn’t that well understood,” said Juliet Slutzker, a project manager at the Biodiversity Institute.

To study the birds, 50 grids with potential owl habitat across the state were randomly selected. One or two volunteers will spend 90 minutes at dusk driving a road that bisects their grid and stopping to look and listen for owls. They’ll do that twice this spring during two different three-week windows.

“They look on either side of the road for owls in flight, owls perched and the sound of owls,” Slutzker said. “They also survey the habitat that is on the wide of the road as well.”

In the spring, short-eared owls take part in courtship displays during which males circle and swoop over the nest while the females watch. The surveys are scheduled to coincide with potential courtship displays while occurring early enough in the year so as to not interrupt fledgling activities.

Short-eared owls, named for tufts of feathers on their head that resemble mammal ears, usually hunt at night for rodents and small birds. They live in grasslands and shrublands.

“Those are declining in the West, and I think that’s one of the reasons these owls are considered to be imperiled or vulnerable in the majority of the states where they’re located,” Slutzker said.

The Western Asio Flammeus Landscape Study was started in 2015 in Idaho by the Intermountain Bird Observatory and HawkWatch International to figure out what habitat was preferred by the owl as well as assess their true condition. Other goals are to better understand owl movements and develop management strategies.

The project expanded the following year to Utah, and then into Wyoming in 2017. Teton Raptor Center organized the Wyoming efforts in 2017 before the Biodiversity Institute took over for 2018. Other participating states this year are California, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Slutzker said grant funding will keep the project going in Wyoming through at least 2020. Each year, volunteers will survey the same grids.

Short-eared owls don’t stay in one place very long, instead following changes in prey availability. That means that any meaningful research has to happen on a regional scale to account for shifting populations, according to biologist Robert Miller.

Miller works at the Intermountain Bird Observatory and Raptor Research Center, both based at Boise State University. He’s the lead author on the project’s 2017 annual report.

In 2017, 330 volunteers conducted surveys in four states and found owls on 18 grids. They were most likely to be found in areas with shrubs or crops instead of grasslands because many grasslands in the West have been taken over by cheat grass, which doesn’t support the same habitat diversity as native grasses, Miller writes.

In states with more than one year of survey history, data show population declines, according to the report. Future declines are expected if climate warming continues because of a decline in prey abundance.

In Wyoming, almost all available grids have been claimed by volunteers, even in remote areas. Slutzker said the Biodiversity Institute has a good track record of attracting volunteers for citizen-science projects in the Laramie area, but organizers weren’t sure if there would be interest in a statewide effort.

“It just showed me never to underestimate the power of the birding community in Wyoming,” she said.

The Biodiversity Institute, which acts as an outreach arm for research at UW, is always interested in biodiversity research specific to Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain Region. The institute also works to involve citizens in the scientific process, Slutzker said.

“Any way we can get the public involved in scientific research, we enjoy,” she said.

Go to for more information about the project.

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