The long-eared owl is a bird of northern boreal forests and an uncommon winter visitor to the U.S., I told someone recently when he called and said he had long-eared owls in his yard. I was completely wrong. The range of the long-eared owl, I read in my bird books after I put down the phone, is southern Canada, northeastern and eastern U.S. south to Virginia, central U.S. south into Arkansas and western U.S. from Canada into Mexico.
A long-eared owl looks like a great horned owl. Its name is from tufts of feathers on its head, a pair of them, like a great horned owl. But it’s smaller, shorter and much more slender than a great horned, though its feather tufts are longer.
I had only seen one long-eared owl. That was years ago in winter in New York state, and I have assumed ever since I saw it it was a winter visitor. If it has such a wide range, I thought as I read about it, why hadn’t I seen more than one?
Because I hadn’t looked in the right places at the right time. As I learned from reading, long-eared owls hunt only at night, and they hunt either by sitting where they are partially hidden, then swooping down on prey when they see it, or by flying back and forth just above the ground. At night. As if that isn’t enough to keep them out of sight, they seldom call. When I see an owl, more often than not I hear it first, then look for the source of its call.
Or I hear crows or other birds screaming, alarmed, and I go to see what the fuss is about. Frequently it’s about an owl they’ve spotted, perched. But long-eared owls roost on a branch of a pine or other evergreen tree, near the trunk, where they are well hidden and not likely to be spotted. Their colors, except for an orange facial disc and bright yellow eyes, also make them hard to spot, the colors of tree bark.
The fellow who called me about the long-earned owls said they were in his yard, at least three of them, and that they’d been there for days. I’d seen one long-eared owl before, and here someone called and told me he had several in his yard. He invited me to come see them.
I went to look for the long-eared owls the next morning. Note, to look for, not to see. I wasn’t convinced the owls would still be there, and if they were, I wasn’t convinced they’d be long-eared owls. I thought they might be great horned owls, although I’d never heard of great horned owls being together except as families, and this is too early in the year for a family of owls to be fledged, for the young to be flying and out of the nest.
My older daughter went with me to look for the owls. She had never seen a long-eared owl. We saw them, and they were long-eared. We saw four. They were perched in pine trees in the yard. We spotted one, walked about under the pines, moving to get the clearest view of it, and three more flew out and went to pines in a different part of the yard.
Now I know the range of the long-eared owl. The correct range. Now I know where they perch during the day and how they hunt at night. Now I know what they eat, according to food habits studies, more than 90 percent small mammals, mice and shrews. Now I’ve seen several. Four is several, isn’t it? Now I have two new friends, the man who called me because someone told him they thought I’d be interested in hearing about some owls, and the fellow’s wife.