© KURT LINDSAY
A Long-eared Owl sighting represents the well-being of an entire ecosystem. Typically non-existent in locations where riparian areas, grasslands, shrubs, and forests are unhealthy or diminishing, Long-eared Owls use each of these habitats for crucial purposes. Riparian areas and grasslands serve as hunting grounds; forests and dense shrubbery provide nest and roost sites. Their dependence on such an array of ecosystems is linked to decreasing populations: agriculture, human development, and reforestation are negatively impacting Long-eared Owls.
Interestingly, Long-eared Owls don’t actually have long ears. The tufts perched atop their heads are not ears at all; instead, they are small groups of specialized, long feathers that stand up when the owl is alarmed and in need of camouflage. By resembling sticks, these feather tufts enable them to blend into trees and dense foliage when feeling threatened. Tiny muscles control the rise and relaxation of these tufts.
Unlike most owls, Long-eared Owls prefer to hang out with groups of friends. This is called communal roosting. Typically, communal roosts occur in the winter and contain between 2 to 20 owls. However, roosts of up to 100 birds have been reported! On occasion, Short-eared Owls have also been sighted in these communal roosts. Female Long-eared Owls aren’t easily impressed. In fact, male suitors must dance elaborately and sing beautiful songs to woo them. Males zoom through the air, clapping their wings to produce a whip-like sound, and sing complex songs to impress females. After this exhausting display, the
male picks a place to roost, where he continues to flirt by swaying back and forth, gently flapping his wings.
© Kurt Lindsay
LONG-EARED OWL FACTS:
Medium-sized owl; buff-colored facial disks, yellow eyes, white eyebrows, black beak, and conspicuous ear tufts
Males: whitish-gray with dark brown streaking and barring
Females: tend to have more dark brown than males
Young: feathers mostly brown with lighter tips, ear tufts much smaller than adults
Common Long-Eared Owl or Northern Long-Eared Owl
CLOSEST RELATIVE: Short-Eared Owl
LONG-EARED OWL SIZE:
Female larger than male
Height: Males 35-38 cm (13.8-15.0 in), Females 37-40 cm (14.6-15.7 in)
Weight: Males 220-305g (7.8-10.8 oz), Females 260-435g (9.1-15.3 oz)
Wingspan Both: 90-100cm (35.4-39.4 in)
LONG-EARED OWL RANGE:
In North America ranges from southern Canada through most of U.S. south to New Mexico; circumpolar in northern hemisphere; northern populations tend to migrate seasonally, while more southern populations are non-migratory
LONG-EARED OWL HABITAT:
A variety of habitats from dense vegetation to open forests, usually near open land, such as meadows or farm fields
LONG-EARED OWL DIET:
Mostly small mammals such as voles and mice, sometimes birds
LONG-EARED OWL VOICE:
Usually silent except during breeding season
Males: a long series of “hoo”s every few seconds, alarm call a barking “ooack, ooack, ooack”
Females: most commonly a soft “shoo-oogh”
LONG-EARED OWL NESTING:
Nest Site: does not build nests; reuses abandoned nests, or nests in tree cavities, cliffs, or even on the ground
Eggs: usually 5-7, more if food sources are abundant
Incubation: 26-28 days
LONG-EARED OWL HUNTING HABITS:
Mostly nocturnal, occasionally crepuscular (during breeding season); an active-search hunter, flies silently back and forth; locates prey by hearing (can capture rodents in complete darkness); kills small mammals by biting the back of their head; swallows prey whole
LONG-EARED OWL CONSERVATION STATUS:
Considered a “species of special concern” in some parts of the U.S., listed as threatened in Iowa, endangered in Illinois
LONG-EARED OWL RESEARCH:
Read about the Owl Research Institute's Long-eared Owl study in RESEARCH.
ALSO OF INTEREST:
• Vulnerable to larger, more aggressive owls and hawks
• Nests vulnerable to raccoons, porcupines, snakes and
• Do not build their own nests; use stick nests previously
built and abandoned by other species.
• Have feathers on toes to protect and insulate
• Species of Special Concern in California, Montana, North
Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, & New England
• Migrate only at night
• Can catch mice in complete darkness because of
asymmetrical ear openings
• Only nest once a year and lay 5-6 eggs each brood
• Swallow prey whole normally
• Branchers (young that flutter down from the nest) climb
back up trees to safety by pulling themselves up trunks or bushes with their beak, wings, and talons
LONG-EARED OWL DISTRIBUTION IN NORTH AMERICA
Maps provided by The Birds of North America Online and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Do owls really have ears? Yes, all birds have ears!
However, birds’ ears are actually openings hidden beneath the feathers behind their eyes. The so called “ears” that the Long-Eared Owl is named for are really just tufts of feathers atop its head. Researchers believe that these tufts may help them blend into their surroundings. There are several species of owls that share this feature, including the more common Great-Horned Owl.
So how can you tell a Long-Eared Owl from a Great-Horned Owl? These two owl species can be distinguished by their size (Great-Horned Owls are much larger than Long-Eared Owls), and also by the shape of their ear tufts. Great-Horned Owls’ ear tufts are widely spaced and face outwards, while Long-Eared Owls’ tufts stand close together and upright.
Though the two owls’ habitats can overlap, Great-Horned Owls prefer tall trees in dense forests, while Long-Eared Owls are commonly found in thick brushy areas.
Long-Eared Owls have an interesting relationship with some of their neighbors; instead of building their own nests, these resourceful owls will reuse the stick-nests of Corvids like Magpies, Crows, and Ravens.
In the winter, Long-Eared Owls often roost communally in groups of 2 to 20. Early spring, before the leaves are out, is a great time to find their large nests. If you find one, look carefully, and you just might see a pair of “ears” poking out!