Long-eared Owl Life History

Habitat

Habitat ForestsLong-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. Back to top

Food

Food MammalsLong-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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest TreeLong-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.

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.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:2-10 eggs
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
Egg Description:White.
Condition at Hatching:Helpless, eyes closed, covered with white down.
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Behavior

Behavior Aerial Dive (ground/talons)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. Back to top

Conservation

Conservation DecliningLong-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% in Canada, 18% in the U.S., and 3% in Mexico. The species rates a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Long-eared Owl are are on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which lists bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. 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.Back to top

Backyard Tips

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

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Credits

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

Marks, Jeffrey S., Dave L. Evans and Denver W. Holt. 1994. Long-eared Owl (Asio otus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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