Agonistic (fighting) Behavior in Male Short-eared Owls

I recently returned from one of my favorite places in the world – Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  Last year I was able to photograph nesting Short-eared Owls carrying voles to their young but this year, because of the very cold spring, nesting hadn’t even begun.  Instead the owls were competing for territory and mates and pairing up.   On one morning I was incredibly lucky to find two males trying to impress a female with their aerial prowess and fighting skills.  They were so engrossed in their activities that they pretty much ignored me.


Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

 Often one male would be on the ground when the other male would swoop in on him.  Here the foreground bird has just lifted off to meet his adversary.


Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

As was often the case the birds didn’t make actual contact.  In researching this behavior I’ve learned that they will sometimes lock talons and fall to the ground before releasing.  I suspect that as they rush toward each other they look for a weakness in defense – if they spot one in the other birds defensive body position they would likely make aggressive contact.



Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

Most of the time both birds stayed on the ground or flew very low but occasionally one of the owls would fly several hundred feet up and circle over the other male (and the female, who was on the ground watching the entire process) and then begin a wing-clapping display that is part of an acrobatic  aerial display called “sky dancing”.  In this behavior the owl shows exaggerated wing beats and claps the wing tips together that makes a sound that resembles a person slapping their thigh with an open hand at a fast speed.  I could hear the sound very clearly even with the bird flying so high.

One of the males had been performing this clapping display which apparently didn’t sit well with the male on the ground so it took off and rose to challenge the show-off bird.



Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

Approaching the other male who is higher up…



 Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

Almost there…



  Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

This time I thought the aggressor might actually make physical contact since the other bird doesn’t seem to be in a very effective defensive posture




Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

But he didn’t.  The aggressor, on the left, seems to have deliberately aimed behind the other owl and I don’t believe they made actual contact.


Canon 7D, 1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

Most of the time the aggression played out  very close to the ground.  Often both birds would be on the ground several hundred yards apart but watching each other intently when one would take off and rush the other.  Typically the owl on the ground would wait to the last-minute to pop up and present its talons defensively.



Canon 7D, 1/1600, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

And again, no apparent contact.



Canon 7D, 1/1600, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

The bird being attacked often had to place his body in some pretty strange positions in order to have his talons presented effectively.  Here the attacking bird has just passed over and to the right.  This owl is recovering from an upside down defensive position.



 Canon 7D, 1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

But this body position is the weirdest I was able to photograph.  Makes me laugh every time I see it.



Canon 40D, 1/500, f/13, ISO 400, 17-85 at 85mm

I thought this photo would help the viewer put the combat grounds and some of the behavior in perspective.  Here you can see both males eyeing each other from afar and watching for an impending attack (the far bird is small and at the right edge of the frame).

On this trip I was hoping to find nesting owls but instead found fighting ones.  Believe me, getting an owl in focus in flight while it’s carrying a vole is much easier than when they’re fighting.  Short-ears usually have moth-like buoyant flight with slow deliberate wing beats that make them relatively easy to follow with a long lens.  That’s definitely not the case when they get close to each other in a skirmish.  Their defensive and offensive maneuvers then are erratic, unpredictable, lightning quick and hellishly difficult to track.   I got very few technically strong images of the behavior and I’m sure you’ve noticed that some of the owls in these photos are less than tack-sharp and the changing lighting conditions combined with the bright white ventral surfaces of the males made for some blown whites.  Even so, I’m still delighted to have been able to get the images I did and to see the behaviors.  What a treat!





19 comments to Agonistic (fighting) Behavior in Male Short-eared Owls

  • Marge Anderson

    wonderful photos – saw this behavior this spring at Buena Vista Grasslands in WI and you’ve completely captured it. Thank you.

  • Incredible captures! I am amazed at the behaviors you witness and capture.

  • Hi Ron, I’ve just found your blog via the link from the Owlman. These shots are unbelievably fascinating. I have loved looking at every one of them, especially, the upside down owl shot. Irresistible photography. I’d like to put a link from my blog to yours if you don’t mind – I’d love my readers to see these – this is the photography I aspire to.

  • Amazing photos. I will put a cross post on my blog to make sure that my readers check out your incredible photos!

  • Thanks very much Gaby. Yes, it certainly was a joy to photograph these owls and just to be around them and observe their behavior. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’ve never had the opportunity with Screech Owls – hopefully someday soon…

  • Gaby Woolman

    I was googling kestrels as I have been seeing one in our yard lately (mid-city location) and came across your fantastic photography. I love, love, love, these owl pictures. What a joy for you to have witnessed this and thanks for sharing. We put up an owl house in our backyard several years ago and have had the joy of seeing screech owls raise their young in it. I wish I could take such wonderful pictures of them as you do of your birds of prey!

  • Thank you Kiri. Yes, seeing and photographing these fighting male SEO’s was an experience I’ll never forget.

  • Hi there,
    I saw my first ever short eared owl today and googled their behaviour. What an amazing flight sequence. Oh and I own a 7D too 🙂

  • Thank you so much Paul – you made my day. I hope you like your 7D as much as I do mine. It serves my purposes very well, though I do wish for a little less noise at higher ISO’s.

  • Paul Dogman

    Ron what can I say? Your photos are truely awesome. I have been taking pictures of SEO’s myself today but none nearly as good as yours. Yet I notice we have the same camera. Can I just say what a treat it is to view your photography. I’m blown away!!! Inspirational

  • M. Luna Iris

    Okay, your photos just helped me realize that the bird I took as a Northern Harrier just w. of Helena MT two winters ago….was a short-eared owl! At the time, I noticed the prominent facial disks, but the behavior (low-flying rodent hunting, “coasting” on large wings), location (open grassy field) and time of day (early morning) did not register as “owl” to me! I’m so thrilled to know that this is who I really saw.

  • Holy Cow! Some of those photos were breathtaking…literally. I had to just stare in awe! Fantastic work!! Don’t stress about any imperfections. Your worst photos blow away my best!

  • What an absolutely thrilling experience this must have been. The documentation of this behavior is stunning. As for the technical aspects of the images, the action far supercedes the lack of IQ- which is superb in light of the described difficulties. Simply outstanding work Ron, congratulations.

  • Jim Hackley

    Very cool series with the short-eared owls, that must of been something to watch this behavior, the images really showcase this very well, way to go Ron.

  • Incredible series! The actions are stunning, congratulations! Love their almost surreal upside down pose and intense eye contacts. I have always wanted to photograph short eared owls but haven’t even got a single decent one. Your work is an inspiration.

  • Thank you Cheryl. I have the same passion for owls that you do so I was very happy to get these images, imperfections and all.

  • Cheryl Owen

    Wow! I have a bit of a passion for Owls and would have loved to have just witnessed that behaviour – never mind try and take photos of it! .. and as for ‘noticing that the photos aren’t tack sharp’ – you’re kidding right LOL! They are absolutely stunning – I can’t even get animals that I’m photographing just a few feet away from me in focus properly so I’m just speechless at what you achieve!