© Gregg Thompson
  • Juvenile

Hover over to view. Click to enlarge.

Long-eared Owl

Asio otus
Strigiformes
Owls have an upright posture, large heads, forward-facing eyes, and strong, sharp bills with a pronounced downward curve. Most are nocturnal or semi-nocturnal. Exceptional low-light vision and keen directional hearing enable them to pinpoint the location of prey. Owls typically have extensive feathering, with feathers often extending to the tips of the toes. Cryptically colored and patterned plumage helps to camouflage them as they rest by day. Their dense, soft feathers allow them to fly silently. The world's two owl families are both represented in Washington:
Strigidae
Most of the world’s owls belong to this family. The differences between the two owl families are primarily structural. The facial disks and heads of typical owls are more round than those of Barn Owls, and their legs are generally shorter.
Uncommon resident, mostly east.
  • Sound To Sage

General Description

Long-eared Owls are brownish-gray, medium-sized owls with long ear-tufts, hence the name. They have distinctive rufous-orange facial disks. They are mostly gray above, with dark and russet patches at each wrist, conspicuous in flight. Below, wings are mostly buff, and the patches at the wrists are dark. Long-eared owls are barred and streaked with dark brown and rufous on their breasts and bellies. In flight they can be hard to tell from the closely related Short-eared owls, except by behavior and habitat.

Habitat

Long-eared Owls breed in dense coniferous or broadleaved woodlands with adjacent open areas where they hunt. They are often found in wooded areas along streams and in planted windbreaks. During the winter, they roost in dense vegetation. East of the Cascades this is often in conifers, willows, Russian olives, or junipers, and west of the Cascades in conifers, willows, or ash trees.

Behavior

Long-eared Owls are not as vocal as most other owls and are rarely heard outside of the breeding season. They hunt mostly at night, although they are sometimes active before dusk, especially when they are feeding young. They are chase-predators and hunt by flying fly back and forth low over the ground. When they locate prey by sound or sight, they swoop down and seize it with their talons. Males perform a zigzag aerial courtship display with intermittent wing-claps. Outside the breeding season, large roosts often form, and courtship typically begins at these roosts.

Diet

Long-eared Owls eat a variety of small mammals, especially mice and voles. They sometimes also take small birds and reptiles.

Nesting

Monogamous pairs often form at winter roosts. Long-eared Owls usually nest in abandoned stick nests, often the nests of magpies, crows, ravens, or hawks. On occasion they nest in cavities or brushy tangles. They do not add nesting material. Females lay 2'10 eggs, usually 5-6, and incubate them 26-28 days. During incubation, the male brings food to the female on the nest. After the young hatch, the male alone brings food to the young and to the brooding mother. When brooding ends, the female begins to hunt and to help feed the young. Young owlets venture out of the nest onto nearby branches at about three weeks, and begin taking short flights at about five weeks. The female generally abandons the young about 6 to 8 weeks after they hatch, but the male continues to feed them until they are 10-11 weeks old.

Migration Status

Long-eared Owls are sometimes considered resident throughout their breeding range, but it is likely that most birds do migrate, especially those in the northern part of their range. They are nomadic at times, usually in response to food shortages.

Conservation Status

The conservation status of Long-eared Owls is not well known. Populations appear stable in most of North America, although they have declined in some areas due to habitat loss. In many areas, they may benefit from human-created forest fragmentation, which creates open areas for hunting adjacent to wooded areas for nesting. Protection of wooded river corridors and other isolated tree groves, especially in arid areas, is important for their local survival.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Long-eared Owls are rare breeders and uncommon winter visitors in western Washington, but there are breeding records from Whatcom, Skagit, and King Counties. In eastern Washington, Long-eared Owls are fairly common year round. In winter, they are believed to be most common in the wheat country of southeastern Washington, with roosts of up to 50 birds in Walla Walla County. There is a large winter roost in the Moxee Valley (Yakima County). The Lower Crab Creek area in Grant County is a good place to look for them in breeding season.

Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
EcoregionJanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
Oceanic
Pacific Northwest Coast
Puget TroughRRRRRRRRRRRR
North Cascades
West CascadesRRRRRRRRRRRR
East CascadesUUUUUUUUUUUU
OkanoganRUUUUUUUUURR
Canadian Rockies
Blue MountainsUUUUUUUUUUUU
Columbia PlateauUUUUUUUUUUUU

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern