Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

Pigment loss


Long-eareds are mid-sized owls of wooded areas. They get their name from the long, antennae-like feather tufts on their heads (commonly thought to be ears), which are enhanced by the species' typical camouflaging posture - a ramrod straight, elongated pose. These shy, nervous owls are often mistaken for Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) because of their many similarities. Both have notable ear tufts, yellow eyes, dark beaks and dense frontal barring. In fact, Long-eareds are much smaller than Great Horned Owls and far more delicate looking. They lack the stocky posture of their larger, more powerful cousins and fly with a loftier, more buoyant movement.

Long-eared Owls are also commonly confused with Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus), their closest relatives in Canada. Both species are of similar build and size. However, any confusion can easily be remedied in the field because these two species utilize completely different habitats. While Long-eareds are forest birds, Short-eareds inhabit grasslands. Another method of distinguishing between these owls is by looking at the frontal barring. Short-eared Owls have fewer markings and all of these are vertical. Of course, a final method, often difficult to interpret, is examination of the "ear" tufts: Long-eared or Short-eared?

Great Horned Owl
-stockier, larger

Short-eared Owl
-shorter tufts, vertical, clear belly barring

Long-eared Owls generally inhabit dense woodlands with a predominance of conifers. Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and crow nests are utilized, as Long-eared do not build nests of their own.

The nervous, high-strung energy characteristic of most wild Long-eared Owls has led The Owl Foundation to adopt a unique breeding cage design for our adult pairs. Each unit incorporates many tall, vertical baffles. Apart from providing flight obstacles (like the trees in a forest), these baffles create hidden nooks so that the inhabitants can hide from both people and other owls. This, of course, means that even the staff at The Owl Foundation does not necessarily see each Long-eared Owl every day. Several birds are often only visible by remote control camera. However, these unique cage designs help to minimize the stress of captivity and have led to the successful breeding of this Canadian owl species.

Of particular interest has been the discovery of age related pigment loss in Long-eared Owls. Although many species of owl do seem to gain a few pale or white feathers as they age, our most shocking individual was a typical looking female Long-eared who arrived in 1984. By the time of her death in 2002, she had lost most pigment in the feathers of the facial disc, nape, back and scapulars (see above).


Long-eared Owls produce many different sounds. Spring elicits the courtship hoos; a series of low, quiet hoos produced by males. Another call, often produced by rivalling males in a single territory, sounds much like a sigh - "hehhh". Presumably, this is a territorial vocalization. Finally, anxious or excited owls will sometimes produce a fast, relatively loud, "wart" call. This is typically doubled or tripled as "wart wart" or "wart wart wart".


Produced when anxious, this sounds like "Wart! Wart! Wart!"
Alarm Call

Two male Long-eareds. Often produced in the early evening.

  Wooing call produced by a male.

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Owl vocalizations recorded by Kara Kristjanson.
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