The migratory status of the Long-eared Owl is not clearly understood. Many birds do winter on breeding grounds, but others migrate long distances to the southern U.S. or Mexico. Long-eared Owl populations in Europe rise and fall with populations of voles, their preferred food source, but this relationship has not been noted in North America.
Long-eared Owls often roost communally in winter, sometimes with as many as 20 birds in a group. Groves of conifer or cedar trees are often used, and observers looking for Long-eared Owls can be tipped off to their presence by pellets or whitewash under the occupied trees.
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Description of the Long-eared Owl
The Long-eared Owl has brownish and gray upperparts, a tawny face, dark barring and streaking below, and long, closely-spaced ear tufts.
The sexes are similar, though males tend to be paler. Length: 15 in. Wingspan: 36 in.
The sexes are similar, though females tend to be darker.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles have more darkly barred tail feathers.
Long-eared Owls inhabit woodlands, conifer groves, and juniper stands in open country.
Long-eared Owls eat small mammals.
Long-eared Owls forage at night, flying low and locating prey by sight and sound.
Long-eared Owls are resident throughout much of the western U.S., breed across southern Canada, and winter throughout much of the eastern U.S. They have a Holarctic distribution. The population appears to be declining.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Long-eared Owl.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
Groups of Long-eared Owls often roost together during the winter.
Long-eared Owls hunt mostly at night, but will flush from their well concealed roost location if birders approach during the day.
Although they have ear tufts, this is not actually where their ears are located. Birds have ears on the sides of their heads, around the same height as their eyes.
The call of the male consists of a series of soft hoots.
Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owls are larger, with a white bib and more widely spaced ear tufts.
Eastern Screech Owl
The Eastern Screech Owl is much smaller.
The Long-eared Owl usually nests in an old hawk or raven nest.
Number: Usually lay 4-6 eggs.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 26-28 days, and leave the nest in about another 3-5 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time
Bent Life History of the Long-eared Owl
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Long-eared Owl – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ASIO WILSONIANUS (Lesson)HABITS
As the American long-cared owl is now regarded as a species distinct from the European long-eared owl, it seems to me that the above name is misleading; the name American long-eared owl would be more appropriate and would indicate the distinction. Wilson and Audubon regarded the two as identical. They are evidently closely related and bear considerable resemblance to each other. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1905) regarded the American bird as a variety, or subspecies, of the European bird and described the differences in the color patterns. The reader is also referred to Dr. H. C. Oberholser’s (1922) discussion of this subject.
The American long-eared owl enjoys a wide distribution over nearly all the United States and the timbered regions of Canada, including the tree belts along the streams on the western plains and even on the deserts. It can hardly be classed as a bird of the deep forests, as it may be found wherever it can find the tree growth sufficiently dense to give it shelter for its nest and concealment during the day. I believe it prefers dense groves of coniferous trees, where these are to be found; in Massachusetts I have always found it in such places; but on the plains and prairies of the ‘West, and on the arid plains and deserts of the Southwest, it seems equally at home in the deciduous timber belts around the lakes and along the streams, where it seems to be more abundant than in the East and, in some places, almost gregarious.
S. F. Rathbun writes to me that in eastern Washington “it appears partial to valleys of streams that have a growth of cottonwoods, alders, and similar trees, with thickets of various kinds, for many of the latter have a heavy growth of climbing vines and this owl seems to like the density of such places. In one such place, during the spring of 1933, we found it to be common. The birds appeared to confine themselves to a stretch of territory extending 6 or 7 miles along a small stream bordered with a mixed growth of the kind already mentioned, and within this area a number of pairs of the long-eared owl were nesting.”
Probably this owl is much commoner than is generally supposed, especially in the East, where it finds such effective concealment in dense coniferous thickets. The long-eared owl is more strictly nocturnal in its habits than some of our other owls; it spends the day well hidden in the densest cover it can find and seldom moves about unless disturbed; for this reason it is seldom seen and may be common where its presence is not suspected. Its protective coloration and its effective hiding pose make it difficult to recognize and easy to overlook. It is more conspicuous and so seems more abundant in the deciduous trees of the West, especially in winter.
Nesting: The long-eared owl is a rare breeder in eastern Massachusetts; many good ornithologists have never seen its nest; however, I have been fortunate enough to have seen seven nests of four different pairs of owls. My first nest was found on May 15, 1910, in Rehoboth. It was a small, insignificant nest about 20 feet up in a pitch pine in a patch of swampy, mixed woods, mostly white pines. It was apparently an old squirrel’s nest, and I would have passed it by if I had not seen the bird fly from it; it was made of small sticks, rubbish, strips of inner bark, and pine needles and was lined with chips of outer bark and downy feathers of the owl; it measured 20 by 8 inches over all, and the inner cavity was 7 by 6 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep. It contained three eggs nearly ready to hatch.
The other nests were all in white pines. One, apparently an old hawk’s nest, was about 40 feet up in a pine, surrounded by deciduous trees in a grove of tall, mixed woods. Two of the others were in rather open situations, where solitary pines, or small groups of pines, were scattered among a low growth of small deciduous trees and scrub oaks. These were, apparently, old crows’ nests, well concealed in the thick tops of small pines, 25 and 35 feet from the ground. They were evidently successive nests of the same pair of owls; the first held five young on May 19, 1920, and the second contained five eggs, about one-quarter incubated, on April 20, 1921. This latter nest was made of coarse sticks and was lined with dead pine needles, strips of inner bark, and many owl feathers; it measured 24 inches in outside and 12 inches in inside diameter and was hollowed to a depth of 4 inches.
The other three nests were the successive nests of another pair of owls, in a large tract of dense white pine woods, where I had previously found Cooper’s hawks nesting. These nests ranged from 30 to 40 feet above the ground, and two of them were in nests known to have been occupied by Cooper’s hawks in previous years. In the first nest the hatching process was nearly completed on May 10, 1921. On May 24, 1925, all but one of the young had left the nest of that year. The following year, on May 26, the young of that year had all left the nest and were so well hidden that I could not find them, but the old owls were both very solicitous. I had looked at this nest on April 21, when the owl was undoubtedly incubating, but, as I saw no signs on the nest and could not drive the owl off by pounding the tree, I did not climb to it. I have doubtless passed by other occupied nests without knowing it, as this owl is not easily driven from its nest and there are seldom any feathers showing about the nest until after the young have hatched. I have never succeeded in locating any of these four pairs of owls since the above dates.
On June 2, 1905, while hunting along Bear Creek, near Crane Lake, Saskatchewan, we saw an old ferruginous rougleg’s nest, about 14 feet up in solitary poplar among a lot of low brush near the creek (p1. 31). When I climbed up to it and looked over the edge, I was surprised to see a long-eared owl staring me in the face and less than 2 feet away; its feathers were all bristled up, its wings half spread, and its eyes blinking; it made a formidable appearance, hissing and snapping its beak. It was evidently as much surprised as I, but it settled down again on its five heavily incubated eggs as soon as I withdrew. The nest was a large one, 48 by 23 inches over all, and the inner cavity measured 10 by 9 inches; it was made of the usual large sticks and rubbish, and was lined with bunches of grass, pieces of dry cow dung, and a few feathers of the owl.
While I was hunting around Victorville, Calif., on the edge of the Mojave Desert, with Dr. Louis B. Bishop and Walcott Thompson, they showed me a small nesting colony of long-eared owls, where they had found at least four pairs of these owls with eggs or young two years before. The locality was an extensive tract of cottonwoods and willows along the Mojave River. The place was overrun with pack rats, which evidently furnished a convenient food supply for the owls. We flushed two of the owls, but not from nests. There were a lot of old nests in the woods, perhaps built by night herons or crows. One that I climbed to was evidently a feeding nest, as it had the remains of a pack rat in it. Another, which I could not climb to without irons, had considerable down on it and may have been the owls’ nest.
In this connection Henry W. Henshaw (1875) says:
It seems to be a habit with this species in the West to congregate together and form colonies, often made up of a large number of individuals. I have, however, noticed this to be most frequently the case in regions where timber was scarce, and doubtless this lack of places suited to the necessities of their nature, which requires them to pass the hours of daylight in some dark, secluded retreat, furnishes the reason for this apparent sociability. In Grass Valley, Utah, I thus found at least a dozen individuals together in a small grove of cedars, and nearly every tree contained one of their nests, rudely made of coarse sticks, while some supported two or three. The birds were roosting in the low branches in the darkest portions of the clump, and they were generally so well concealed that I saw them only as they dashed hurriedly out when I was close upon their retreats.
Major Bendire (1892) writes:
The Long-eared Owl rarely constructs a nest of its own; usually the last year’s nest of a Grow is slightly repaired by being built up on the sides and lined with a little dry grass, a few dead leaves, and feathers; some of the latter may nearly always be seen hanging on the outside of the nest. Fully three-fourths of the nests found by me occupied by these Owls were those of the Crow. Only a very few were evidently built by the birds themselves. One such found near Camp Harney, Oregon, on April 4, 1877, was placed in a thick bush of dry willows about 10 feet from the ground. This was tolerably well built, composed externally of small sticks and sprigs of willows and aspens. Some of the latter had been peeled by beavers, which were common in the vicinity, and they were still green and pliable; these fresh looking sticks drew my attention to the nest, which I mistook for that of a Raven or Crow. The inner cup was about 5 inches deep and lined with dry grasses and feathers; it contained four fresh eggs. * * * On another occasion I found a pair of tong-eared owls occupying a cavity in an old cottonwood stump not over 12 feet high; a Red-shafted Flicker had that season excavated a burrow directly over that of the Owl’s and the two entrance holes * * * were not more than 2 feet apart. The birds seemed to live in perfect harmony with each other.
Audubon (1840) also found a nest that was evidently made by the owls, “near the Juniata River in Pennsylvania, where it was composed of green twigs with the leaflets adhering, and lined with fresh grass and sheep wool, but without feathers.”
Old nests of the black-billed magpie are often appropriated. A. D. DuBois, in his notes, thus describes such a nest that he found in Montana: “While exploring an almost impenetrable thicket, bordering the Teton River, I came upon an old magpie’s nest, which would not have arrested my attention except for a number of downy feathers clinging to the outside of it. It was in a scrubby willow tree, about 15 feet from the ground. The field glass revealed no sign of life within, but when I made my way to the tree and gave it a rap with a stick an owl flew out from the farther side of the nest. She alighted on a branch a few feet away to take a brief look at me and then hastily disappeared in the brush. I climbed to the nest and could clearly see, through the openings in the old flattened canopy of magpie architecture, that it contained five white eggs. The old nest cup proper, constructed of mud, was for the most part intact, although somewhat dilapidated. It was rather fiat and shallow. In it were a few coarse twigs and some gray feathers of the owl, forming a flat saucer-shaped bed upon which the eggs rested. The canopy, or roof, though not very thick, was sufficiently intact to enclose the nest completely, except for a large hole in one side, which the owl was using as an entrance, and a smaller hole opposite.”
Grinnell and Storer (1924), writing of conditions in the Yosemite region, say: “In all cases the owls had pre-empted older nests of the Black-billed Magpie, a bird common in that vicinity. The owls begin to nest somewhat earlier than do the magpies, and hence gain possession of the last year’s nests before the original builders have occasion to reclaim them. The magpies thus have to build anew. In almost every instance a newly constructed and occupied magpie’s nest was found within 15 to 50 feet of an owl’s nest.”
Major Bendire (1892) says that J. W. Preston “took a fresh laid egg of the Long-eared Owl from a nest of Crow’s eggs.” J. A. Munro (1919) says: “On April 19, 1917, I found a female occupying a new crows’ nest and sitting on one egg. Broken crow’s eggs on the ground below the nest indicated that she had evicted the original owners. On April 30, the crows were again in possession and the nest contained four crow’s eggs. The owl then laid four eggs in an old crow’s nest, fifty yards from the first one.”
Sidney E. Ekblaw (1919) found a nest in an apple tree in an old orchard and says: “About the nest small branches were very dense, thereby offering very good protection for a secluded nest. The nest itself was composed entirely of sticks with but a very few leaves for a lining. * * * In another crotch in the same tree we observed an old nest, identical in composition to the present one. As the longeared owl has been recorded in this vicinity every year recently, doubtless the second nest was last year’s.”
Several instances have been recorded of the long-eared owl nesting on the ground, both in this country and in England. L. M. Terrill found one in the Laurentian Hills, northwest of Montreal, on June 4, 1928, and has sent me a photograph of the bird on its nest (pl. 36) and some elaborate notes on the subject. It was in a boggy, black spruce forest bordering a lake. “The nest was merely a shallow cavity, at the base of a black spruce sapling on the margin of a glade, well within the woods, lined with a very few twigs, flakes of bark and Labrador-tea leaves; any or all of this material could quite easily have fallen there. The glade was carpeted with sphagnum, with a sprinkling of such plants as Ledum and Rhodora and was somewhat littered with fallen trees, owing to lumbering in bygone years.” Mr. Terrill thinks the owl was forced to nest on the ground because of the scarcity of suitable tree nests. He has records of more than 20 nests of this owl, and all the others were in old nests of crows or sharp shinned hawks; all were in conifers in dense evergreen woods, mainly cedar swamps.
Mr. Rathbun tells me that if a set of eggs is taken the owl will lay a second set in about 20 days.
Eggs: The long-eared owl lays three to eight eggs in a set, but four or five seems to be the commonest number. They are pure white and oval; the shell is smooth and rather glossy. The measurements of 103 eggs, in the United States National Museum, average 40 by 32.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 43.5 by 33.5, 43 by 35, 37.5 by 31, and 38.5 by 30 millimeters.
Young: The incubation period is generally considered to be about 21 days. An egg is laid about every other day, and since incubation begins when the first egg is laid the young hatch at similar intervals and show considerable variation in size. It does not seem to be known whether the male assists in incubation, but he is always close at hand, while the female is incubating, during the day at least, and responds quickly to her cries of distress. Probably he hunts for food at dusk and during the night and may feed his mate on the nest or relieve her to hunt for herself.
When between four and five weeks old the largest young birds begin to leave the nest, crawling out onto the surrounding branches. All leave the nest long before they can fly, climbing about or fluttering down to perch on any low branch or fallen tree. They are carefully guarded by both parents during this period, who rush to their defense and attempt to lure an intruder away by spectacular demonstrations. They are fed by their parents until they are at least eight or nine weeks old, have gained the full power of flight, and have learned to hunt for themselves. The family group keeps more or less together during summer and fall and perhaps during winter.
The calls of the young, described below by William Brewster (1925), are evidently their cries of distress that call their parents to their defense; at least they produced that result each time that he heard them. He writes:
They were perched together on a fallen branch about five feet above the ground, to which they must have fallen or fluttered down not long before, from a nest that could be seen high in a pine directly overhead, for having wingquills scarce more than one half grown they were incapable of level flight. When closely approached they behaved precisely like the young found in 1874 [crouching in a nest, see below under “Behavior”], and made essentially the same sounds although the blowing ones heard to-day were less suggestive of “snoring” than of the hissing or “spitting” of an angry house-cat, and the crick-a-crick calls seemed more like the chirping of a field-cricket than the squeaking of a wheelbarrow.
E. L. Sumner, Jr. (1929), in his studies of a brood of young longeared owls, found that the egg tooth disappeared during the first week, but the young were very sluggish and inactive; even the oldest made no protest other than a feeble hiss, and all the rest were silent. Eleven days later, he says: “The largest three youngsters are quite aggressive, standing up with outspread wings inverted and every feather erect, which gives them a deceptively bulky appearance. They snap viciously at my outstretched finger, and sway from side to side: a trait not exhibited by any of the hawks: but are as yet perfectly harmless. With the exception of the oldest, they make no noise other than a snapping of the bill; this bird uttered a number of loud shrill prolonged squeaks, similar to one of the notes uttered by the adults.”
When he visited the nest again, five days later, the young were from two to three weeks old; he writes:
There are only three owls in the nest, and since it is highly improbable that the two largest birds could have learned to fly, it would seem that they have fallen out of the nest. This is all the more indicated by the surprising lack of care with which the remaining young move about in the nest when I approach: entirely unlike the behavior of hawks. They raise their wings, snap their bills, and without the slightest hesitation back right off the nest. Bird c saved itself only by clinging desperately to the under side, where it could not have remained long unaided. Bird d fell all the way to the ground, striking a large limb in its descent, and was unable to use its wings other than to break the force of the fall. This inability to remain in the nest until the power of flight is gained would appear to be a considerable liability to the species, especially because of the danger from predatory animals. * * *
The remaining birds are more aggressive than ever. Like the Barn Owl, they throw themselves upon their backs and use their claws when hard pressed, and like these owls, they also run at the intruder of their own accord.
Plumages: The young long-eared owl is hatched with eyes closed, but they open within a few days. It is sparsely clothed in short pure-white down on the main feather tracts only, with bare spaces between them; the facial disks are prominent and covered with white down. When huddled down in the nest the bird appears fully covered, but, as it moves about, the bare spaces are exposed; hence it is necessary for the parent to brood the young at this stage.
After a week or ten days the white down begins to be replaced by the soft, downy juvenal plumage. When about three weeks old the young bird is nearly half grown and the wing quilts are partly out of their sheaths; the body is well covered with the long, soft, downy plumage; this is basally dusky on the head and neck, with grayish white tips, giving a hoary effect; on the under parts it is basally pale buff, terminally grayish white, and with two to four dusky bands on each feather; the downy plumage on the back is similar but with more buff and more distinct bands; the long, fluffy, grizzly down on the thighs is very prominent, the tail is still in sheaths, and the facial disks are conspicuously brownish black.
During the next two weeks the hoary down on the crown and nape is replaced by short, dusky feathers with broad, silvery-white tips; the wings and tail are growing, and the first winter plumage is replacing the downy plumage, first on the upper and then on the lower parts. At the age of six or seven weeks, the young owl is fully grown, the wings and tail are as in the adult, and nearly all the downy contour plumage has been molted; the last traces of immaturity to disappear are the hoary-tipped feathers of the crown and the downy plumage of the posterior under parts. In full first-winter plumage young birds are practically indistinguishable from adults.
Adults have a complete annual molt in the fall, from September to December. There is considerable individual variation, but, in the series I have examined, males average paler and with more white on the under parts than females. Dr. Oberholser (1922) says that there are “at least four color phases, these being a light and a dark ochraceous phase, and a light and a dark gray phase.” These phases are none too well marked in a series of more than 70 specimens that I have examined, and they look more like individual variation, though there are more gray birds among the males and more ochraceous birds among the females.
Food: The long-eared owl is unquestionably worthy of protection as one of our most beneficial birds of prey, for a very large proportion of its food, probably close to 80 or 90 percent on a seasonal average, consists of injurious rodents. Many of these owls have been shot as destroyers of game birds or rabbits, hut, among hundreds of records, I can find only one record of a quail and two of ruffed grouse being killed, and very few records of young rabbits. There seems to be no record of domestic poultry being attacked.
Dr. A. K. Fisher’s (1893b) summary states that “of 107 stomachs examined one contained a game bird [the quail referred to above]; 15 other birds; 84 mice; 5 other mammals (including one young rabbit); one insects and 15 were empty.” In a lot of pellets collected near Washington, U. C., he found 176 skulls or parts of skulls, among which only 13 were of birds, and the remainder were of various mice and shrews. Dr. B. II. Warren (1890) “examined the stomachs of 23 long-eared owls and found that 22 of them had fed only on mice. Dr. Paul L. Errington’s (1932c) pellet records for Wisconsin show that, during fall, winter, and early spring, mammals, mainly mice, make up 99 to 100 percent of the food; and during late spring and summer this percentage drops to between 87 and 92 percent, the percentage of birds running from 7 to 12 percent. His summary states: “Total vertebrate kills from pellets and stomachs (quantitative data) amount to 3,273; juvenile cottontail, 1; Norway rat, 3; meadow mouse, 2,732; deer mouse, 497; shrew, 14; small bird (mostly finches), 26.” In two cases flocks of quail were wintering near where his owls were roosting, but he found no evidence that the owls ever molested the quail.
On the other hand, Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1918) had a collection of pellets examined, which he had found under a nest in June at Ipswich, Mass., and reported that the “owls had eaten some 13 different species of birds and 23 individuals; also 4 species of mammals and 25 individuals.” This and Dr. Errington’s summer records indicate that birds are taken in quantity only during the season when the owls have a brood of young to feed and when mice are not sufficiently abundant to fill their requirements. As additional evidence on this point, we have the report by F. M. Jones (1934) that a lot of pellets, collected early in summer under a nesting tree in Pennsylvania, contained the remains of 46 birds and 45 mammals; but he says that two young owls that he kept for several months in captivity “would invariably eat the mice first if given both mice and English Sparrows or Starlings, and should there be sufficient mice to satisfy their appetites, they would not eat the birds at all.”
Dr. George M. Sutton (1926) has reported the killing of two ruffed grouse by a, long-eared owl. It seems remarkable that this lightweight owl could attack and kill a bird so much heavier than itself, but the evidence seems convincing that the owl killed and partially ate the grouse.
Various species of mice make up the bulk of the long-eared owl’s food; other mammals included are various rats, including the destructive Norway rat, shrews, moles, squirrels, chipmunks, pocket gophers, bats, and young rabbits. The list of birds is a long one, but in the aggregate it constitutes but a small part of the total food; it includes one quail, two ruffed grouse, and one mourning dove, as exceptionally large birds; the birds oftenest taken are the various species of sparrows, but red-winged blackbird, horned lark, meadowlark, cardinal, towhees, juncos, goldfinches, warblers, kinglets, thrushes, bluebirds, scarlet tanager, and brown thrasher have also been recorded in the food of this ow]. Beetles and various other insects, frogs, and an occasional small snake have been eaten by it.
Grinnell and Storer (1924) write: “Hunting almost exclusively at night, this owl does not capture many birds. The Spurred Towhee here recorded as being captured is notable for being especially active at dusk, just when the Long-eared Owl begins its nightly forays. The Long-eared Owl, although roosting and nesting in dense thickets, does its foraging in the open, and small birds are not as available there, at least at night, as they are in the trees and bushes through which certain other species of owls, known to capture birds, are wont to hunt. The meadow mice and gophers are most active in the early hours of the night, when presumably this owl does most of its foraging.”
Behavior: -The long-eared owl is normally so inactive and retiring during the daytime that we have learned very little about its behavior, except what we have seen of it when its nest or brood of young is disturbed. Here its behavior is quite variable and often exceedingly interesting and spectacular. I know of no bird that is bolder or more demonstrative in the defense of its young, or one that can threaten the intruder with more grotesque performances or more weird and varied cries. But the full performance is not always seen; it is seen at its best when there are young to be protected. At the first nest that I found, containing heavily incubated eggs, the owl merely flew around at a safe distance, snapping its bill and uttering a variety of weird notes. At the Saskatchewan nest the owl did not leave the nest at all but assumed her threatening attitude as I looked over the edge of the nest; she settled down again on her heavily incubated eggs when I withdrew.
Once I sat under a nest tree for some time, eating my lunch, without seeing any signs of life about the nest. When I climbed the tree the old owl flew off the nest, where she had been quietly brooding her young all the time. Her cries of distress soon brought her mate to the scene, and the performance began. Both parents were very demonstrative, flying about close at hand, alighting in the tree close to me, threatening to attack me, and indulging in a long line of owl profanity. One of the owls occasionally chopped to the ground, as if wounded, and fluttered along, crying piteously or mewing like a cat; by this ruse she succeeded in tolling my companion some distance away before she flew. This wounded-bird act, which I have never seen performed by any other bird of prey, was repeated several times on this and on other occasions.
Once, while I was standing in plain sight in a treetop near a nest, the female stood for a long time, perfectly still, a short distance away in the thick woods; meantime the male was perched near me, watching me and making frequent short flights over and around me, scolding and snapping his bill. Finally I crouched down more out of sight among some thick branches; the male soon flew to the nest and gave a low, squealing whistle, and the female returned to the nest at once, as if she had been assured that all was well.
W. Leon Dawson (1923) describes a clever ruse, employed to entice him away from a nest, as follows:
The male parent had delivered himself of his quaint objurgations, and had retired from the scene in disgust. The female had caterwauled and cajoled and exploded and entreated by turns, all in vain. * * * All of a sudden the Owl left her perch, flew to some distance and pounced upon the ground, where she could not well be seen through the intervening foliage. Upon the instant of the pounce, arose the piercing cries of a creature in distress, and I, supposing that the bird in anger had fallen upon a harmless Flicker which I knew dwelt in that neck of the woods, scrambled down instanter and hurried forward. The prompt binoculars revealed neither Flicker nor mouse. There was nothing whatever in the Owl’s talons. The victor and victim were one and the same, and I was the dupe. Yet so completely was the play carried out that the bird fluttered her wings and trod vigorously, with a rocking motion, as though sinking her claws deeply into a victim.
William Brewster (1925) writes:
Hall an hour after sunset this evening [June 12, 1874] I was hastening through woods of intermingling pitch pines and red cedars near Arlington Heights when a faint, intermittent crick-a-crick, not unlike the squeaking of an ungreased wheelbarrow, attracted my attention. It seemed to come from a dense growth of cedars in a hollow towards which I had taken only a few steps when the still air was rent by a dozen or more piercing shrieks, given in quick succession, and all alike save that each was a trifle less loud than the one immediately preceding it. Altogether they lasted almost half a minute and suggested the screams of a terror-stricken bird in the clutches of a Hawk, but were much louder and more startling. They constituted a fitting prelude to the spectacular appearance, only a second or two later, of their author, a large, female Long-eared Owl, who suddenly pitched down to the ground about thirty yards away and stood facing me with ruffled plumage and glaring yellow eyes. Her widespread wings were so held that the tips of the outermost primaries touched the carpet of pine needles at her feet and those of the innermost secondaries met over her back, the other quills radiating outward between them. Although, as I have said, she faced me, the outer, not inner, surfaces of both wings were shown in my direction. Owing to this singular disposition and inversion of all the flight-quills, they formed what appeared to be a large, erect, circular fan of evenly-spread feathers completely surrounding the head and body of the bird. Standing thus with threatening mien and menacing, swaying movements of the head, she looked like some impish, malformed creature half beside itself with rage.
This startling pose, so well described by Mr. Brewster, is often seen under various circumstances as a defense display. It is the pose assumed by the bird that I surprised on its nest in Saskatchewan. Major Bendire (1892) describes exactly the same pose that was assumed in surprised self defense by one of these owls that he came upon suddenly while it was killing a squirrel on the ground behind a log.
On rare occasions this owl will actually attack an intruder at its nest. Joseph Dixon had such an experience while trying to photograph some young owls. Grinnell and Storer (1924) say of it: “The owls usually gave little heed to the camera, save to glare at the lens as though the reflection seen there were another and intruding owl. One individual, thought to be a female, was more aggressive, and several times attacked the photographer openly. She would wait until Mr. Dixon put his head under the focussing cloth; then she would swoop down and strike his head. At first the bird used only her wings, but later, becoming emboldened, struck with her claws, and once inflicted slight wounds in his scalp.”
Not the least interesting of the long-eared owl’s tricks is its very effective hiding pose, which A. D. DuBois describes very well in his notes. He says: “I suddenly found myself gazing at a strange object in front of me, some 20 or 25 yards away. Soon I realized that it was an owl, standing upright and rigid, stretched vertically to its utmost, its girth contracted to an incredible degree. It seemed much more like a piece of broken tree branch than a living creature. It appeared perfectly cylindrical, very long, and small (I should say perhaps two and a half inches in diameter). Its ‘horns’ were erected to their full extent, were perfectly vertical and parallel, and in this position seemed very close together. This strange thing was entirely gray, of blackish and whitish tones in vertical streaks, resembling the rough gray bark of an old tree No color was visible except the yellow of the eyes, which gazed at me fixedly. It was a most remarkable protective attitude.”
The flight of the long-eared owl is light, buoyant, and as noiseless as that of other owls. Its long wings and tail are more than ample for its light, slim body; consequently it sometimes seems to hover or flutter like a butterfly. Its gliding flight is swift at times, but it is seldom, if ever, called upon to capture birds on the wing. Generally its prey is silently approached and pounced upon. Although it hunts occasionally on dark days, its hunting is done mainly during the dusk of evening or early morning, or on moonlight nights. Whether it hunts to any great extent during the darkest hours of the night we do not know. The widely spread notion that owls cannot see in the daytime is, of course, an error, This, and all other owls that I am familiar with, can see just as well in daylight as other birds; and this one is especially expert in threading its way through the intricacies of the woods and thickets in which it takes its daylight naps.
Voice: The long-eared owl is a versatile vocalist; its vocabulary is long and varied. The notes that I have heard have all been given in the vicinity of the nest; at other times this owl is a remarkably silent bird. The soft, hooting notes are recorded in my field notes as quoo-quoo-quoo, or as a more prolonged, single quoo-oo-oo, somewhat like the notes of the screech owl in quality. They are not harsh but rather musical and mellow. A still softer who of-who of-who of is uttered at frequent intervals, presumably by the male, as an encouragement to his mate on the nest, or to the young. Grinnell and Storer (1924) say that “the hoot of the adult bird is low, mellow, and long-drawn-out, and bears a resemblance to the note of the bandtailed pigeon.”
When much excited, both owls may fly about, snapping their bills vigorously and uttering loud notes of protest in three syllables, uuck-wuek’-wuck, or wek-wek’-wek, with a strong accent on the second syllable. At such times, I have heard also a low, squealing whistle, like the warning note of the ruffed grouse. During the highest pitch of excitement and anxiety, the owl drops to the ground with shrill cries of distress, loud piercing shrieks, flutters along the ground, as if badly wounded, and pours out a series of catlike mowing notes, mis-c -ew, or a more prolonged mie-ee-u-u-u-ew.
Others have heard similar notes as well as several different ones. Major Bendire (1892) says: “Except during the mating season it is rather a silent bird, and the few notes which I have heard them utter, when at ease and not molested, are low toned and rather pleasing than otherwise. One of these is a soft toned ‘wu-hunk, wu-hunk’, slowly and several times repeated, which really sounds much better than it looks in print; another is a low twittering, whistling note like ‘dicky, dicky, dicky’, quite different from anything usually expected from or attributed to the Owl family.”
Mr. Dawson (1923) mentions “the regular note of disapproval, a sort of groaning execration used chiefly by the male, Morach moraaaoow, werek wereic wraaow, wreele wraaa: all very ‘flat’ and very emphatic.” Dr. Townsend’s (1918) owl “constantly uttered low notes which suggested at times the barking of a small puppy, at times the notes ud-hunk.” Dr. G. Clyde Fisher (1919) heard “a softly whistled whee-you, the two syllables slurred together. Although scarcely as long as the ordinary note of the Phoebe, in quality it suggested that of the Screech Owl: being, however, much shorter and more frequently uttered than the latter.” Ernest T. Seton (1890) mentions “a strange shrieking, between the cry of a fox and a cat” and “a loud long cry like on: il : il: il-il: il: il: ba.”
Alden H. Miller (1935) says that the hoot of the female is “four or five half tones higher” than that of the male. He says of the hoot of the male: “The pitch at first approximated that of a female Horned Owl. As the hoots were repeated the pitch was raised as much as five half tones. Even so, they were remarkably low for so small an Owl. Six to twenty hoots were given in a series and often only a few minutes elapsed between groups of hoots.”
Field marks: Being intermediate in size between the great horned and screech owls, the long-eared might be mistaken for either of these “eared” owls under certain circumstances, though it is relatively slenderer than either; in flight it is more wavering and uncertain, and it has relatively longer wings and tail. When perched its “ears~~ rise more nearly from the center of the head; it lacks the white throat of the great horned and is more longitudinally striped, less transversely barred, on the under parts. Its brown facial disks and its color pattern should distinguish it from the screech owls when perching at short range. As its “ears” do not show in flight, and sometimes not when perched, it might be confused with the short-eared owl, which it resembles in size and manner of flight, but it is more darkly colored, grayer, less buffy, and differently marked; neither of these owls is likely to be seen in the normal habitat of the other. E. S. Cameron (1907) says that “when this owl is in flight, a brown spot shows conspicuously on the buff lining of the wings underneath the primary bases.”
Enemies: Owls have few enemies except man; unfortunately they are usually shot on sight, because they are big and are picturesque as mounted specimens, or because they are supposed to destroy game and domestic poultry; this is a rank injustice to this beneficial mouser. Crows, jays, grackles, and many other birds habitually pester this and other owls, but they do no real harm to them. L. M. Terrill says in his notes that a pair of pigeon hawks had a nest within 150 yards of his long-eared owl’s ground nest, and that “whenever the owl flushed from the nest one of the pigeon hawks swooped to attack it and drive it away. This happened almost invariably.”
Winter: Edward H. Forbush (1927) remarks:
There seems to be a general belief that owls do not migrate, but with this species as well as some others that range far to the north, there is a regular southward movement from the most northern part of the range, a general migration which is evident also for a greater or less distance to the southward of their usual breeding range. Therefore, in spring and autumn Long-eared Owls are more numerous in New England than at any other season. Mr. H. H. Bailey says that large numbers come into Florida from farther north to spend the winter there, the time of their arrival depending much upon weather conditions in the north, but that many arrive by December and depart northward in March.
William Jay (1923) found a large colony of long-eared owls “wintering in a dense growth of pines and other coniferous trees growing along the Skippack Creek at Evansburg, Pa. No less than fifty of these birds were congregated in this grove. I was working my way slowly through the trees, when I came upon nine of these Owls at close range. As I did not wish to disturb them I backed slowly away, but right in to the main colony where I saw five or six Owls on every tree around me.”
Dr. Alvin R. Cahn and J. T. Kemp (1930) found a colony of seven of these owls wintering “in an evergreen in the heart of the residence district of the city of Urbana,” Ill. The numbers varied from four to seven, the latter number being counted on 44 occasions. The birds were first noted on November 8,1926, and they remained until the following April 2; they returned to the same tree on October 21, 1927, and left on March 16 next. These may have been family parties.
Major Bendire (1892), on February 23, 1872, “saw about fifteen of these birds sitting close together on a small mesquite tree in a dense thicket in the Rillitto Creek bottom, near Tucson, Arizona.” E. S. Cameron (1907), referring to Montana, says that “in fall and winter these owls occupy cavities in high cut banks of the badlands; Messrs. Archdale found a Long-eared Owl frozen to death in a badland hole.”
The foregoing accounts, and numerous others, show that ~he longeared owl migrates southward to some extent in fall and spends the winter almost anywhere that it can find suitable cover between the northern and southern borders of the United States. They also show that the species is decidedly gregarious at this season and indicate the probability that the young remain with their parents during their first winter.
Range: Temperate zones of North America.
Breeding range: The breeding range of the long-eared owl extends north to Mackenzie (Fort Simpson and Fort Providence); Saskatchewan (probably Fond du Lac, Prince Albert, and Qu’Appelle); southern Manitoba (Oak Lake, Carberry, Portage la Prairie, and Shoal Lake); Minnesota (probably Browns Valley and Elk River); Wisconsin (Marshfield, Kelleybrook, and West De Pere); Michigan (Munuskong State Park, Brant, and Detroit); southern Ontario (Lucknow, Coldstream, Toronto, and Kingston); southern Quebec (Quebec); New Brunswick (Woodstock); and Nova Scotia (Kentville and probably Halifax). East to Nova Scotia (probably Halifax); southeastern New Brunswick (Grand Manan); Maine (Bucksport and Warren); New Hampshire (Franklin Falls); Massachusetts (Ipswich and Taunton); Connecticut (Northford); Long Island (Lake Grove and Flushing); New Jersey (Summit and Penns Grove); Maryland (Baltimore and Rockville); and the District of Columbia (Washington). South to the District of Columbia (Washington); southern Pennsylvania (Hanover, Carlisle, probably rarely State College, and Du Bois); Ohio (Uhrichsville, Steubenville, and Toboso); northern Indiana (Fort Wayne and Cedar Lake); illinois (Philo, Odin, and Roadhouse); Missouri (Courtney and Independence); Kansas (Topeka, Manhattan, and Ellis); New Mexico (Santa Fe); probably northern Arizona (San Francisco Mountain); and southern California (San Diego). West to California (San Diego, Escondido, Santa Catalina Island, Los Angeles, Santa Paula, probably Tulare Lake, Paicines, Alameda, Novato, Middle Lake, and Goose Lake); Oregon (Fort Klamath, Haycreek, and Sheridan); Washington (Bumping Lake); British Columbia (Lulu Island and Okanagan); and western Mackenzie (Fort Simpson).
Winter range: In winter the long-eared owl is found north to British Columbia (Okanagan); Alberta (Stony Plain, Edmonton, and Provost); southeastern South Dakota (Vermilion and Sioux Falls); southern Minnesota (Hastings); southern Wisconsin (Madison); southern Michigan (Ann Arbor, Plymouth, and Detroit); southern Ontario (Plover Mills); New York (Lockport); and Massachusetts (Boston). East to Massachusetts (Boston and North Truro); Rhode Island (Newport); New York (Orient); New Jersey (Summit, Plainfield, and Five-mile Beach); Maryland (Laurel); the District of Columbia (Washington); North Carolina (Raleigh); central Alabama (Greensboro); and rarely Florida (Cape Florida and Cape Sable). South to rarely Florida (Cape Sable); rarely Louisiana (Abbeville); Texas (Houston and Brownsville); Durango (Las Bocas); Sonora (Tiburon Island); and Baja California (Rosario). West to Baja California (Rosario); California (Escondido, Victorville, and Willows); western Oregon (Corvallis); Washington (Yakima); and British Columbia (Okanagan).
Spring migration: While there is no question that the long-eared owl performs regular migrations, there is little definite information available. Actual arrival and departure dates are apparently influenced as much by weather conditions and available food as by response to the migratory impulse.
Early dates of spring arrival north of the regular winter range are: Vermont: Rutland, March 3. Quebec: Montreal, April 17. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, April 12. North Dakota: Rice Lake, April 9; Wahpeton, April 13. Manitoba: Treesbank, March 28; Margaret, April 1; Aweme, April 4. Saskatchewan: Indian Head, April 13; Osler, April 18.
Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure from the regions north of the regular winter range, are: Saskatchewan: Indian Head, October 20. Manitoba: Margaret, October 20; Aweme, October 31; Treesbank, November 2. North Dakota: Argusville, November 18; Marstonmoor, November 18. Ontario: Ottawa, November 1. Nova Scotia: Halifax, October 1. Quebec: Montreal, October 22. Vermont: Rutland, October 24.
Data are too few to throw much light upon the times of arrival and departure in regions south of the breeding range, but in general these owls may be expected in such areas during the latter part of November and December and they will remain until late February and March.
The extent of the travels that may be made by long-eared owls is graphically illustrated by the flights of two individuals marked with numbered bands. One of these, banded at Rosebud, Alberta, on July 4,1933, was shot at Layton, Utah, on February 2,1935. The other, banded at Escondido, Calif., on April 22, 1934, was recaptured at Corbeil, Ontario, on October 9, 1934. This last record is one of the most remarkable banding records thus far obtained. It has, however, been thoroughly checked for accuracy.
Casual records: A specimen was taken on the Taku River, Alaska, on September 26, 1909; three were collected in May 1877 or 1878 at Godhout, Quebec; and according to Preble (1902), it was found at Fort Severn, Manitoba, by Hutchins. One was seen at Oakley Depot, S. C., on January 16, 1917, while Wayne (1910) refers to two specimens collected in this State at Mount Pleasant, on March 16, 1896, and another at the same place on January 16, 1906. He refers also to another taken in Edgefield County, S. C., during the winter of 1905. Three were seen and one was collected on San Clemente Island, Calif., in December 1908.
Egg dates: California: 58 records, March 1 to May 23; 29 records, March 17 to April 9, indicating the height of the season.
Southern Canada: 21 records, April 12 to June 5; 12 records, May 9 to 19.
New York and New England: 13 records, March 31 to May 31; 7 records, April 19 to May 15.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey: 29 records, March 14 to May 30; 15 records, March 29 to April 11.
Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa: 8 records, March 20 to April 28.