Short-eared Owls

Western Asio flammeus Landscape Study (a.k.a. Project WAfLS) is a citizen science effort to monitor the population status of Short-eared Owls and lead conservation action.

The Short-eared Owl is an open-country, ground-nesting species found in marshes, grasslands, shrublands, and tundra across North America and around the world. They feed primarily on small mammals (e.g. mice, voles, shrews), but sometimes will take birds. Their population densities are incredibly variable and track outbreaks of their primary prey: voles.

Due to their nomadic nature and cryptic habits, comparatively little is known about this geographically widespread but uncommon raptor. While the evidence for a range-wide population decline in Short-eared Owls is convincing, the magnitude of the decline is uncertain because of relatively poor survey data. The primary threat to the species is thought to be the loss, fragmentation, and degradation of intact swaths of native grasslands and wetlands; however, the specific mechanisms behind their declines are unknown and warrant further study. Several pressing conservation priorities for Short-eared Owls have been identified, including: 1) define and protect important habitats, 2) improve population monitoring, 3) determine seasonal movement patterns, and 4) develop effective management plans and tools.

Population Surveys

In 2016, we collaborated with several partners to begin a citizen science project to conduct count surveys and start collecting population data throughout Utah and Idaho. The project expanded to Nevada and Wyoming in 2017, and thanks to a recent State Wildlife Grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the project now includes eight western North American states.

Short-eared Owls perform beautiful, elaborate courtship displays during spring evenings. Citizen science volunteers help conduct spring surveys in March and April, taking advantage of the unique courtship flight behavior that makes them particularly visible during this time of year. Watch the short video clip below of this amazing and unique courtship behavior. Surveys are conducted once in March and once in April at dusk in appropriate habitat (grassland, wetland, shrubland, and agriculture) across the entire state of Utah.

Our results directly influence high-value conservation actions by state and federal agencies, and our volunteers are rewarded with training and experience in critical observation, the scientific method, data collection, and regularly report unique and exciting observations.


Project Partners

  • HawkWatch International and Utah Department of Wildlife Resources (Utah)
  • Intermountain Bird Observatory and Idaho Bird Conservation Partnership (Idaho)
  • Nevada Department of Wildlife (Nevada)
  • University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute (Wyoming)
  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife (California)
  • Owl Research Institute (Montana)
  • Klamath Bird Observatory (Oregon)
  • Washington Department of Fish and Game (Washington)

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Tracy Aviary for their funding support in 2016 and 2017. An extra special thanks to the many volunteers who contribute their time and resources to the WAfLS project.


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Image Gallery

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