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Long-eared Owl

Asio otus ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Long-eared Owls are lanky owls that often seem to wear a surprised expression thanks to long ear tufts that typically point straight up like exclamation marks. These nocturnal hunters roost in dense foliage, where their camouflage makes them hard to find, and forage over grasslands for small mammals. Long-eared Owls are nimble flyers, with hearing so acute they can snatch prey in complete darkness. In spring and summer, listen for their low, breathy hoots and strange barking calls in the night.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
13.8–15.7 in
35–40 cm
Wingspan
35.4–39.4 in
90–100 cm
Weight
7.8–15.3 oz
220–435 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a Great Horned Owl, larger than a Western Screech-Owl.
Other Names
  • Hibou moyen-duc (French)
  • Buho chico (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The hoot of the male Long-eared Owl can sometimes be heard up to 1 kilometer (0.7 mi) away.
  • Like other owls, the Long-eared has a body adapted for silent flight and precision hunting. Flight feathers with fringed edges and downy surfaces mute the sound of the owl’s passage through air. The owls gain incredible hearing from their asymmetrically placed ear openings and large, sound-catching facial disks.
  • In 1994, a researcher discovered a nesting Cooper’s Hawk incubating two Long-eared Owl eggs along with three of its own. The hawk had probably usurped the nest from the owl. Another researcher documented three cases of Long-eared Owls appropriating nests that had been recently built by American Crows.
  • Long-eared Owls swallow their prey whole and then regurgitate the indigestible parts in pellets, usually one per day. If you find these pellets they’re fascinating to pick through, full of tiny animal bones and fur. Some biologists collect these pellets and use them to learn about owl diets.
  • In addition to the North American and Eurasian populations, isolated groups of Long-eared Owls occur in North and East Africa, the Azores, and the Canary Islands. While this owl’s biology has been extensively studied in the U.S. and Europe, little is known about it in other parts of its range.
  • The oldest Long-eared Owl on record was at least 12 years, 1 month old. It had been banded in New York and was later found in Ontario, Canada.

Habitat


Forest

Long-eared Owls roost in dense vegetation and forage in open grasslands or shrublands; also open coniferous or deciduous woodlands. They occur at elevations ranging from near sea level to above 6,500 feet. In Idaho, large numbers of Long-eared Owls nest in willows, cottonwoods, and junipers adjacent to shrubsteppe; in several western states these owls also often build their nests in brushy vegetation adjacent to open habitats. In some areas, including in Michigan and western Oregon, Long-eared owl nests are found in coniferous or deciduous forests near open meadows.

Food


Mammals

Long-eared Owls eat mostly small mammals, including voles, many kinds of mice, kangaroo rats, shrews, pocket gophers, and young rats or rabbits. They hunt over open ground or below the canopy in sparsely forested areas. Prey items usually weigh up to about 3.5 ounces, often less than 2 ounces. They also sometimes eat small birds, capturing them on the ground or (in the case of roosting birds) from low vegetation. Rarely, Long-eared Owls eat moles, bats, weasels, chipmunks, ground and tree squirrels, snakes, and lizards.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–10 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.5–1.7 in
3.8–4.4 cm
Egg Width
1.2–1.4 in
3–3.5 cm
Incubation Period
25–30 days
Nestling Period
21 days
Egg Description
White.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, eyes closed, covered with white down.
Nest Description

Long-eared Owls apparently do no nest-building themselves. Instead, they usually appropriate stick nests built in trees by other bird species—commonly Black-billed Magpies, American Crows, Common Ravens, and various hawks. Nest cups average about 2.5 inches deep and 8.5 inches in diameter.

Nest Placement

Tree

Long-eared Owls typically use stick nests abandoned by other bird species. Less often, they raise their young in cavities in trees or cliffs, in abandoned squirrel nests, or on the ground. Long-eared Owls in Oregon nest have made nests of dwarf mistletoe “brooms”—dense branch profusions that form in response to the mistletoe infection. In Arizona, these owls sometimes nest in crooks of saguaro cactus.

Behavior


Soaring

Long-eared Owls hunt on the wing, coursing back and forth low above open ground. They may also hover over prey, or hunt from perches in strong winds. They kill small mammals with a bite to the back of the skull, and often swallow their prey whole. Nesting Long-eared Owls sometimes form loose colonies, occupying nests as close as 50 feet apart. They may also share nesting areas with American Crows and Black-billed Magpies. Outside of breeding season, the owls roost in groups of up to 100 birds. Older nestlings are called “branchers” because they leave the nest to take up residence in surrounding trees. They move around by jumping, hopping, and pulling themselves up with wings and bill. Long-eared owls usually form monogamous pairs. Bonding probably begins in winter, before communal roosts disband. Courting males make a complex series of calls and perform an aerial, zigzagging display over suitable nesting habitat, with glides and winbgeats interspersed with wing-claps.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Long-eared Owls are fairly common, but their numbers fluctuate from year to year and their population trends are difficult to determine because of their secretive nature and tendency to move nomadically. Populations may be on the decline. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 50,000, with 18 percent in Canada, 18 percent in the U.S., and 3 percent in Mexico. They rate a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Long-eared Owl populations need both grassland and wooded areas; they are vulnerable to the loss of riparian woodlands and isolated tree groves, especially in the arid West.

Credits

Range Map Help

Long-eared Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Winters throughout breeding range, but some individuals migrate long distances. Birds banded in the northern US and southern Canada have been recovered in Mexico. Normally migrates only at night.

Backyard Tips

Long-eared Owls may nest in artificial baskets and open-fronted nest boxes.

Find This Bird

Long-eared Owls are secretive, nocturnal, and superbly camouflaged. One good way to find them is to listen at night in spring and summer for their long, low hoots. During winter these owls often roost in large numbers, and this can make them easier to find. Methodically search pine stands or shelterbelts near grassland or pasture for roosting owls, often close to the tree trunk among dense branches. Also look along the ground for pellets (gray, roughly oval cylinders of regurgitated fur, feathers, and bone). If you find a large number of these, you may be under a roost tree. Long-eared Owl pellets are typically 2-3” long, while pellets of other owls found in such situations are either larger and less elongate (Great Horned Owl) or smaller and rounder (Northern Saw-whet Owl). Also scan the ground and lower branches for extensive whitewash (bird droppings), which can also indicate recent roosting by owls.