Four Long-eared owl siblings huddle together on a branch on Market Lake Wildlife Management Area.
A female long-eared owl (mother of the four siblings) incubates her clutch of eggs in an appropriated magpie nest.
Forcing my way through a tangle of shrubs I stopped and looked up to a wonderful surprise. From an eye-level confiscated magpie nest ten feet away, a female long-eared owl stared back at me. Although long-eared owls were on my list for the day, I had no idea I would be as fortunate as to find a nest.
A month later I returned to see what the nest had produced. The nest was empty, but strange high-pitched noises from a tree behind it had me looking up. There, four large but immature long-eared owls were craning their necks for a look at this strange two-legged creature below. Mother flew in and perched in another tree and let me know of her displeasure at me finding her brood.
Although long-eared owls are fairly common, it is always a thrill to see one, especially up close, because they can be hard to find. They are superbly camouflaged, secretive and nocturnal and for much of the year they are relatively quiet.
The more you know about long-eared owls, the better your chances of seeing one. Long-eared owls are lanky slender birds and take advantage of this fact by often perching next to tree trunks where their long profile tends to merge with that of the trunk. They also prefer to roost in thick vegetation where their camouflaged pattern of brown, black and buff serves them well.
Like great-horned owls, long-eared owls have feathers that stick up like “ears”. However, although the long-eared owl is much smaller than the great-horned owl, its ear tufts are longer and stand almost straight up.
Understanding a little long-eared owl biology will also help you locate this bird. Long-eared owls nest in dense forested habitat such as shelterbelts, riparian areas and other thick foliage. However, they prefer to hunt in open grasslands and shrub-steppe where small mammal prey is abundant, so the combination of the two habitats is important.
Although long-eared owls are quiet most of the year, during the spring and summer you can hear them, especially at night, if you are in the right habitat. Males make a single low note, whoo, repeated every two to four seconds for as many as 200 calls. The call can be heard for over half a mile. The female call is also a single note but is higher pitched. If you hear a sound like two sticks banging together, it may be a male doing a wing clap. Once the youngsters leave the nest and start branching, their high-pitched food begging calls are also easy to hear.
Long-eared owls are year-round residents in much of the western U.S. In winter you can find them roosting in communal groups in thick cover. Watch for owl pellets on the ground and lots of “whitewash” droppings to identify roost trees.
Long-eared owls seem to be doing pretty well across their range so get outside and look for one. Given everything else you might see, the search itself will be worth it.