LONG-EARED OWL
Asio otus



      Of the seven species of owls that nest in the Northeast, the long-eared owl is the least known. This medium-sized owl, which averages a bit under ten ounces in weight, is a master of camouflage. Its sooty brown upperparts are mottled with cream and tawny; its whitish front is streaked, blotched and barred with dark brown. Thus the bird perfectly matches the color and texture of tree bark, but that is true of most owl species. What sets the long-ear apart is its ability to draw its already slender body up into an uncannily realistic imitation of a broken-off bough. Pulling in its feathers, erecting the ear tufts that give the long-ear its common name, and elongating its body, this owl suddenly assumes the diameter of a small branch. The illusion is heightened by the long-ear's tendency to sit very still. Even if it is discovered by a human observer, the owl will determinedly hold its pose. Unfortunately this strategy works against the long-ear when it is spotted by larger owls. Long-ears frequently end up as dinner for the much more powerful great horned owl.

      The long-ear boasts a wingspan of 36 to 42 inches, which gives it a big wing area in proportion to its low body weight. The result is unusually buoyant flight. The long-ear can resemble a giant moth in the air, wavering, fluttering, hovering or suddenly turning on the speed to dart into cover. The long-ear is a rodent hunter, and most of its prey is either a mouse or a vole. The owl hunts over open spaces, tilting its head as it listens for the telltale sounds of a scurrying, squeaking or gnawing rodent. The long-ear has huge, asymmetrical ear openings that give it superb hearing. Its eyesight is likewise excellent, admirably equipping the bird for nocturnal hunting. The fact that it is a restricted feeder, specializing in a limited type of prey, dictates the long-ear's lifestyle. This is a nomad, an owl that must move to follow its food supply. Unlike most owls, the long-ear does not establish a hunting territory. It wanders, staying in one area only as long as the mouse and vole population holds out. Winter months often find several long-ears sharing a productive hunting area. At such times fascinated birders may catch a glimpse of six or more long-eared owls roosting together in one tree, typically in an evergreen that provides the birds with dense cover.

      An owl of the forests, the long-ear nests from southern Manitoba down to California in the West, and from Nova Scotia south to Virginia in the East. Winter weather moves the long-ear south, and the species may travel as far as the Gulf States. On rare occasions it has been known to fly to Bermuda and Cuba. Since the long-ear is nomadic, it does not nest in the same place every year. It nests where it can find food, and where it can escape predation from great horned owls. Unlike most owl species it will build its own nest if it can't commandeer a ready-made one put together by a crow, hawk, heron or squirrel. By all accounts such owl-made nests are flimsy creations, and may blow down in a storm or fall apart as the growing babies become active. The eggs are laid between mid-April and mid-May here in the East, and the usual number is four or five. Since the eggs are laid 48 hours apart and incubation begins with the first egg, the oldest owlet in a nest may be as much as two weeks older than the youngest.

      Long-eared owls seem to be declining in number both in North America and in Europe, where the species is also found. While many are hit by cars, the real culprit seems to be habitat destruction, as the open areas this owl requires for hunting are taken over for human development.
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