The long eared owl (Asio otus), also known as the northern long-eared owl, the lesser horned owl or cat owl, is a medium-sized species of owl that breeds in many areas through Europe and the Palearctic, as well as in North America. It belongs to the family Strigidae, known as the typical owls, which contains most extant species of owl.
This species of owl is superbly camouflaged but can often be identified by their long, low hoots. They are nocturnal hunters that roost in dense foliage and hunt over open ground. Their diet mainly consists of small rodents, especially voles, but they can adapt their prey depending on availability.
Long-eared owls are not strongly territorial or sedentary and are partially migratory, although can appear nomadic, too. The long-eared owl is one of the most widely distributed and populated owl species in the world, and due to its broad range and numbers it is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN.
Long Eared Owl Taxonomy
The long-eared owl belongs to the genus Asio, of which the members are commonly referred to as eared owls. Other members of Asio include the short-eared owl, the Jamaican owl and the striped owl.
There are four subspecies of the long eared owl recognized: A. o. otus, A. o. canariensis, A. o. wilsonianus and A. o. tuftsi.
A. o. otus
A. o. otus is the nominate species and is found throughout the species’ range in the Palearctic, as far west as the Azores, northwestern Africa, the Iberian Peninsula and the British Isles through as far east as Sakhalin, Japan and northern China. The size of these birds appears to increase slightly from west to east, with owls in China being about 4% larger winged than those from Europe.
This subspecies has a tawny facial disc that is rimmed black, with relatively short eyebrows that are marked whitish or absent entirely of markings. The upper parts are tawny with dusky spots and blackish streaks. The ears are mainly blackish-brown with tawny edges and the tail is typically tawny with a greyish wash. The eyes are yellow-orange.
A. o. canariensis
A. o. canariensis is found on the Canary Islands and is the smallest subspecies of the long-eared owl, with a wing chord measurement of 257 to 284 mm (10.1 to 11.2 in). This subspecies is darker is also darker than the nominate species and has heavier and sharper dark markings. They also have reddish-orange eyes.
A. o. wilsonianus
A. o. wilsonianus is found in south central and south east Canada, south to southern USA. This subspecies is mostly more vividly marked than the nominate species and has a reddish-brown facial disc with a black rim. It also has deep yellow eyes. This subspecies has a wing chord that measures between 284 and 305 mm (11.2 and 12.0 in).
A. o. tuftsi
A. o. tuftsi is found from western Canada south to south central USA. It has a paler plumage than A. o. wilsonianus, which is how it can be distinguished, although the two subspecies have overlapping range. It also has paler brown mottling than A. o. wilsonianus.
Long Eared Owl Characteristics
The long eared owl is a medium sized owl usually measuring between 31 and 40 cm (12 and 16 in) in total length. They have a relatively long wingspan for their size, which can measure between 86 to 102 cm (2 ft 10 in to 3 ft 4 in). Despite this, they are still smaller than other species of owl, such as the barn owl, short-eared owl and tawny owl. Like most owls and birds of prey, these animals exhibit sexual dimorphism, in which females are usually slightly larger than males. Males also tend to have a light plumage.
Long-eared owls are the most slender of all North American owls, an attribute that they use as a defense against predators. They have a large and round head. Although their name suggests they have long ears, they actually have long, erect feathers at the top of their head by their ears, which appear as tufts that are close together. These are positioned closer to the center of the head than in many other types of owl, although the reason for their position is not actually known. These ear tufts are not visible in flight.
This species of owl is usually brownish gray, with vertical streaks that distinguishing them from great horned owls, which have horizontal streaks. They also have pale patches in the middle of their face that give the appearance of white eyebrows, and a white patch below the bill. The coloring of their facial discs can vary based on the subspecies, but it is always well developed and usually rimmed.
They have a black bill, orange or yellow eyes, and their legs and toes are completely feathered.
Long Eared Owl Lifespan
The long-eared owl is thought to have a relatively short lifespan, with most living to around 4 years of age. However, they can live longer, with the oldest known wild long-eared owl living 27 years and 9 months.
Long Eared Owl Diet
Long eared owls have a wide diet, eating small mammals, birds, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Their most common prey is small mammals, like rodents, which they get most of their energy from. They are known to primarily hunt voles, and even help to control vole populations in some countries.
Where voles are not available, the long-eared owl mostly feeds on field mice, house mice, and rats. Other mammals eaten include bats, hedgehogs, moles, rabbits, hares, squirrels and weasels.
While long-eared owls do not feed on birds very often, they have been known to take house sparrows, Eurasian tree sparrows, starlings and blackbirds. Snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, carp and arachnids are further prey occasionally taken by this species.
The long-eared owl hunts mostly on the edge of woodlands, hedgerows and open spaces with rough grassland. They hunt while flying low to the ground, and use their very good sense of hearing to detect the rustling of their prey instead of using their eyes. They are silent fliers, with their feathers muting the sound of the owl’s passage through the air. Once they have spotted prey, they quickly drop with their talons spread to pounce on the prey.
Instead of piercing their prey with their talons, owls usually constrict their prey to death with their feet. They are also known to kill the prey by biting the back of the skull and then swallow it whole.
Because these owls swallow their prey whole, they then regurgitate the indigestible parts back up in pellets, which can often be found on the ground around owl nests. Some biologists collect these pellets and use them to learn about owl diets.
Because the long eared owl overlaps other owls in its range, it often has to share its prey with other species. Tawny owls are one, although tawny owls tend to show greater dietary flexibility. Short-eared and barn owls also compete or resources with long eared owls. Not only do they compete for food, but they also compete for habitats
Long-Eared Owl Behavior
The long-eared owl is nocturnal, with activity beginning around dusk. During daytime, long-eared owls tends to roost in an upright position on a branch. In the non-breeding season, long-eared owls are often prone to occur in aggregations of owls while roosting, which is quite uncommon for owl species. This can include anywhere from 6 to 50 owls. These birds roost close to the trunk, within dense foliage to remain unseen.
Some long-eared owls are migratory. Northern populations are migratory, showing a strong tendency to move south in the fall. Central European adults are less migratory. Despite some populations of this species being consistent annual migrants, some populations are considered nomadic as they have a very sporadic migratory pattern.
The long-eared owl is mostly silent, although uses a wide repertoire of calls to communicate during the breeding season. The most common vocalizations are soft musical hoots and single quavering hoots. They may also shriek or whistle when excited. Parents will strongly defend their young and alarm calls are demonstrated by both sexes.
Long Eared Owl Reproduction
Long eared owls are monogamous, with breeding pairs beginning to form in the winter. Males advertise to females that they are looking for a mate by using songs and aerial displays. Breeding takes place from February to mid-July.
The long-eared owl nests in trees, usually in a nest built by another animal. Occasionally, they will build a nest of their own. Once the nest has been selected, the female lays 2 to 10 (usually 5 to 6) eggs at 2 day intervals. The eggs are white, smooth and glossy.
The female incubates the eggs for 25 to 30 days, never leaving the eggs uncovered in the day although she takes breaks during the night. When born, the chicks are semi-altricial, although leave the nest after 21 days.
Males provide food for the female and young during the incubation and brooding period. The young begin to fly at around 35 days and become independent at 10 to 11 weeks old. They become sexually mature at around 1 year old.
Long-Eared Owl Location and Habitat
The long-eared owl is found throughout the northern hemisphere, with their range extending from North America, through Europe and as far east as Japan. There have also been small populations found in North and East Africa, the Azores, and the Canary Islands.
This species prefers dense vegetation close to grasslands and are common in tree belts or small woods along streams of plains and even desert oases. They seek out forest edges that have access to open spaces and are abundant prey, with wooded cover for roosting and nesting. They can also be found in small tree groves, thickets surrounded by wetlands, grasslands, marshes and farmlands. Their range can extend from sea level up to 2000 m.
Long Eared Owl Conservation Status
The long eared owl population is thought to be stable across most of its range, and for this reason it is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. The IUCN estimates the total population between 2 million and 5.5 million, placing it as one of the most numerous owls.
The biggest threats to the long-eared owl are humans. Hunters have historically shot these owls, and they are also killed in road traffic accidents and poisoned by pesticides and heavy metals.
Habitat loss is another threat to the long-eared owl. This can be due to land development and climate change.
Long-Eared Owl Predators
Adult long eared owls are preyed on by many other raptors, including great-horned owls, barred owls, greater spotted eagles, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, northern goshawks, eagle owls, common buzzards, and peregrine falcons.
Long eared owl nestlings are preyed on by porcupines, bull snakes, American crows, black-billed magpies, and several hawk species. Adults defend nests by circling the nest and snapping their bill at the predator, or dive-bombing the predator while making alarm calls. They may also pretend to be injured to draw attention away from the nest.
Because long-eared owls are so well camouflaged, they are often not seen by predators when nesting in trees.
Long Eared Owl Importance
Long eared owls are important to their ecosystem. They help to control the populations of their prey in the area, so these areas do not become too overpopulated. They can also help humans in the same way, because they eat rodents such as voles and mice.
Long Eared Owl vs. Short Eared Owl
In much of the long-eared owls range, it occurs with the short-eared owl. The two belong to the same genus and, aside from their names, they differ quite a bit. For starters, the short-eared owl is larger than the long-eared owl and, of course, the ear-tufts of the long-eared owl are much longer than those of the short-eared owl. The short-eared owls also have yellow irises instead of orange, with horizontal black surrounding the eyes instead of vertical on the long-eared. Short-eared owls are paler and have less distinctive markings, too.
In terms of habitat, the short-eared owl favors treeless, open habitats, while the long-eared prefers dense vegetation and forest edges. More visible differences can be seen when these birds are flying, including markings on the wings.
Long Eared Owl vs. Other Owl Species
The long-eared owl can look very similar to other owl species, especially to the untrained eye. Below are some other owl species that are often confused with the long-eared owl in the wild, and their differences from the long-eared.
Stygian Owl (Asio stygius)
The stygian owl is larger than the long-eared and is generally darker with inkier and bolder patterned plumage. The facial disc appears off-black. They also have partially bare toes.
Tawny owls co-exist with the long-eared owl in Eurasia, but they have a much rounder and bulkier build. Their head is also rounder and more broad, and they have no ear tufts. Their eyes are blackish-brown and they have short wings.
Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo)
The Eurasian eagle-owl is much larger than the long-eared owl, with a large, square looking head and ear tufts set closer to the edge. Its feet and talons are also larger and much more powerful.
These eagle owls have more heavily patterned crowns and backs with heavy blackish markings, but also have a less strongly marked facial disc than the long-eared.
Asian Fish Owl
Asian fish owls are also much longer than the long-eared owl. They have less variable coloring and tousled looking ear tufts.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
The great horned owl has a squarish head and more widely separated ear tufts. They are also larger and heavier.
Marsh Owl (Asio capensis)
The marsh owl is usually brown in color and has fine mottling. It also has brown ears and very small ear tufts.
Screech owls are much smaller than long-eared owls and have very short ear tufts.
Long Eared Owl FAQs
Where do long eared owls live in the world?
The long-eared owl is found throughout the northern hemisphere. They can be found in North America, Europe and parts of Asia. There are small populations of the long-eared owl in Africa, too.
Are long eared owls migratory?
Some long-eared owls are migratory. Some move south in the winter, while other populations stay put. Some populations also sporadically migrate, which gives them the appearance of being nomadic.
What do long eared owls eat?
For the most part, long-eared owls eat voles and other rodents, such as mice. They have also been known to eat other birds, invertebrates and reptiles.
Do long eared owls really have long ears?
Long-eared owls do not actually have long ears. The name “long-eared owl” comes from their head feathers which appear by their ears as tufts at the top of their head.
Is the long-eared owl rare?
The long eared owl is not a rare owl. In fact, they are one of the most numerous owls on the planet, with a population estimate of between 2 million and 5.5 million.