The Enigma of Nocturnal Birds of Prey

The long-eared owl (Asio otus), alternatively known as the northern short-eared owl, is a medium-sized, slender owl belonging to the Strigidae family. Renowned for its extensive distribution, this species spans across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North America, and even reaches the northern extremes of Africa, the Canary Islands, and the Azores.

The short-eared owl, as an adult, is a brownish-gray owl with an orange facial disc, whitish underparts with dark stripes, a brown back, and long ear tufts that distinguish this species from other owls when perched. The species is sexually dimorphic, as the female is larger and more colorful than the male.

This owl can weigh between 220 and 435 grams and measures between 35 and 40 centimeters in height. It has large, rounded wings with a wingspan of between 90 and 100 centimeters, which can be noticed in flight. Juvenile birds have soft feathers, giving them a fluffy appearance and a distinctive “V”-shaped marking on the face.

There is a marked difference in appearance between the North American and Eurasian populations. Birds found in North America are quite dark, appear more striped and mottled, and have yellow eyes. On the other hand, Eurasian birds are paler throughout the body, but mainly on the face and reddish eyes.

Long-eared owls are a quiet species compared to other owls, and call predominantly during the breeding season when they produce a collection of songs and calls that serve a variety of purposes. The typical male call can be described as a resounding “woop” that repeats every two to four seconds in a series of up to 200 notes.

The sound produced can be heard more than a kilometer away. The female emits a high-pitched call in the nest, which sounds like the bleat of a lamb. Males and females also produce alarm calls ranging from dog barks to cat meows. When an owl is restless, it quickly makes a popping sound by closing its jaws.

Both sexes can flap their wings while flying, producing a whip-like sound. Young birds also make begging calls.

Long-eared owls primarily reside within their breeding range, but birds that live in the northern sections of their range are largely migratory, moving south during the fall. Owls may respond to decreased food availability by becoming nomadic and moving to areas where food is available.

Birds of the World distribution map

Long-eared owls are found in areas with a mix of tree cover, with the ideal habitat being wooded areas with adjoining bush or open grassland. The forested areas consist mainly of coniferous and deciduous forests with watercourses and windbreaks.

The species has a wide elevation range, from sea level to almost 2000 m above sea level. Owls require different biomes to roost and hunt. They roost during the day in the thick vegetation found in forests and hunt in the adjacent open bushes and grasslands at night.


Long-eared owls feed primarily on small mammals. Mammals include voles, shrews, mice, young rabbits, kangaroo rats and gophers. Sometimes small birds also fall victim to owls.

Birds become trapped on the ground or in low vegetation while resting. Other animals recorded as prey include bats, weasels, moles, chipmunks, squirrels, lizards and snakes.

They can catch prey weighing up to 100 grams, but most prey weigh less than 60 grams.

Short-eared owls are nocturnal creatures, so they are most active at night, when they spend most of their time hunting. During the day, they perch in trees, often against the trunk. Owls are rarely active at dusk, but they hunt when they need to capture other food to feed their young.

Owls hunt by flying back and forth near open terrain. In some cases, owls may hover over their prey or hunt from a perch, especially during high winds. They detect prey using both sight and hearing. The owl jumps when it finds prey, swooping down and grabbing the animal with its talons.

The animal is killed by biting into the back of the skull and the prey is usually swallowed whole. Hunting usually takes place in open areas, but they have been known to sometimes hunt under the canopy of trees in areas with less tree cover.

Long-eared owls breed during the boreal spring and summer months, from February to July. During fall and winter, owls congregate and establish roosting groups of up to 100 individuals. This species is monogamous and courtship usually begins in late winter, when males begin to display for females before the birds disperse.

During the courtship phase, males engage in aerial courtship displays, which involve flying in a zigzag pattern over nesting habitat and flapping their wings intermittently between glides.

Short-eared owls are not known to build their nests, so they commonly use stick nests in trees made and abandoned by other bird species, such as crows, magpies, ravens, and hawks. Owls may sometimes use abandoned squirrel nests, cliff cavities, tree cavities, or even nest in the ground.

Nesting pairs can sometimes be found less than 15 meters away from each other, which are considered loose colonies. The nest is approximately 6.5 centimeters deep and 22 centimeters wide. Females only produce a single offspring during the season. Hatchlings usually consist of five to six white eggs, but females can lay from two to ten eggs. The eggs are 3.8 to 4.4 centimeters long and 3 to 3.5 centimeters wide. The eggs are incubated for 26 to 28 days before hatching.


The female remains in the nest during the incubation period and the male catches his prey to return to the female. Once the chicks hatch, the male is solely responsible for bringing them food and continues to bring food to the female, who remains with the chicks. At the end of the breeding period, the female leaves the nest to hunt and help the male bring additional food to the chicks. The owlets leave the nest three weeks after hatching and move to the surrounding branches. They are known as “branchers” since they no longer live in the nest but on the surrounding branches.

They move by jumping, leaping and even climbing branches using their wings and beak. Owls begin attempting their first short flights at five weeks of age. The owlets continue to be fed by both adults until they are between six and eight weeks old, when the female abandons them. This is followed by the male, who stops feeding the owlets after ten to eleven weeks. Newly fledged owlets reach reproductive maturity after a year and, from that moment on, they can repeat the process with their own offspring.

Adult short-eared owls have been recorded as prey for several birds of prey, including the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), common buzzard (Buteo buteo), and the great horned owl. barred. (Strix varia), Red-tailed Falcon (Buteo jamaicensis) and Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). Chicks are vulnerable to many predators, including birds of prey like those mentioned above, crows, magpies, porcupines, raccoons, and snakes.

To avoid being attacked, owls perch against tree trunks. Their distinctive morphological features, such as ear tufts and elongated body, along with cryptic plumage, allow them to camouflage themselves against the tree, making them difficult to see.

Adult short-eared owls defend their young eggs by bombarding predators while emitting alarm calls. In some cases, they may fake an injury to get the threat’s attention and draw it away from vulnerable chicks or eggs. When owls nest in loose colonies, many owls from other nests may defend the single nest under threat.

Unfortunately, the dangers that owls cannot protect themselves from are those imposed by humans. Motor vehicle collisions and shootings kill many owls.

The short-eared owl is relatively common throughout its range, but its population numbers and trends are difficult to determine due to its nomadic movements and secretive lifestyle. It is generally believed that the global population size is declining due to habitat loss.

However, it has been observed that the number of individuals varies annually, making it difficult to establish a precise population trend. However, the global population is estimated to be between 2,200,000 and 3,700,000 individuals, making it a species of little conservation concern.


Owls need grasslands or bushland and forests, ideally next to each other, so the species is vulnerable to losing these habitats. The species may benefit from human disturbances, such as forest fragmentation, as this opens up spaces for owls to hunt adjacent to the wooded areas in which they nest.

The long-eared owl is a widespread species that feeds mainly on small mammals. It depends on forested and open areas adjacent to each other to breed and hunt successfully.

The world’s population is not seriously threatened. Still, management practices need to be implemented to conserve areas and prevent further declines in the population size of the unique short-eared owl.

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