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The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized Owl. The plumage is buffy brown with dark streaks on the chest, belly, and back. Males tend to be lighter in color than females. This coloring provides good camouflage, but if this fails, a Short-eared Owl will feign death to avoid detection. The wings and tail are strongly barred.
The yellow eyes are circled with black and set in whitish or buffy-white facial disks, which are suffused with a ring of brown. The bill is black. The head appears round without ear tufts, but at very close range small ear tufts are visible. In flight, the dark “wrist” on the underwing is the key field mark.
Often easily identified by behavior alone, the Short-eared is most readily confused with the Long-eared Owl. In flight, both species share similar underwing coloration, and often a good view of a sitting bird is needed to discern the many obvious differences such as the Long-eared Owl’s ear tufts, red facial disks, barred underparts, and lack of tawny coloration. This owl also is potentially confused with the Barred Owl, but easily distinguished by eye and bill color, face and underpart patterning. Barn Owl occupies similar habitat but is much paler and lacks streaking on the underparts.
Males and females are not easily distinguishable from each other externally, but females are usually slightly larger. Individuals vary considerably in colors. The right and left ears occupy different vertical positions on the sides of their head, but the size and shape of the two ears are the same.