Top 10 Facts: Long-eared Owl

For more from the author of this post, you can check out his personal blog to read other posts in the ‘Top 10 Facts’ series. Among these, articles on the Tawny Owl, Mallard, Yew and Willow Tit. You can also follow James on Twitter at @CommonByNature.


 

Communal Roosts. A unique characteristic of the Long-eared Owl is its tendency to roost communally during Winter. Usually solitary, this species has been known to gather in groups of between 2 to 20 individuals, usually in thick cover, but in some locations have been observed gathering in incredibly large numbers. A prime example of one such prominent roost site is the town of Kikinda in Serbia where some observers claim to have counted upwards of 1000 owls in and around the town during colder months.

Lazy nesting. Unusual among owls, the Long-eared Owl nests on a platform as opposed to within cavities. Usually positioned high in the upper branches of conifers. While perfectly capable of constructing their own nests, this species readily utilises those abandoned by other bird species and, in the UK, often opts for disused crow or Magpie nests. Less commonly, birds have also been observed occupying the former nests of a suite of species ranging from Woodpigeons and Sparrowhawks to Grey Herons, and on more than one occasion have been found to occupy disused squirrel dreys.

Global reach. The Long-eared Owl has one of the largest breeding ranges of any owl species, occurring across the Northern Hemisphere from Japan in the East, through China, parts of Pakistan and Mongolia, into Russia, throughout Europe and across large parts of the USA. The species also breeds in smaller numbers in Northern Africa; whereas its Winter range extends to encompass parts of India, Mexico and the Middle-East.

Subspecies. There are presently four separate subspecies of Long-eared Owl recognised around the globe. These are the nominate A. otus, found throughout Europe, North Africa and into parts of East Asia; A. o. canariensis, found on the Canary Islands; A. o. tuftsi, found throughout Western parts of the USA, Canada and Mexico and A. o. wilsonianus found throughout Eastern parts of North America.

Folklore. In Ancient Greece, the Long-Eared Owl was considered rather unintelligent with the term “otus” used frequently to describe simpletons.

The Irish Owl. Long-eared Owls are thought to be the commonest owl in Ireland, with a scattered range throughout the whole country. Contrary to population trends in the UK which show the species to have declined substantially over recent years, the Irish owl population has increased its range by 12% in the Southwest of the country. Possibly as a result of an increase in coniferous woodland (or improved surveying methods).

Long-distance migrant. Like their cousin, the Short-eared Owl, the Long-eared Owls resident in Britain are bolstered by arrivals from the continent during Winter. Typically from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia. The BTO report that one bird, ringed in Cumbria, was found 8 months later in the Mariy region in western Russia, 3,279km from its ringing site. Whereas most of the ringed birds recorded in the UK appear to arrive from Germany. It is not uncommon to see Long-eared Owls arriving over the sea during Autumn, and they regularly seek respite on Oil-rigs and ships during the perilous North Sea crossing.

Sour relations. Perhaps more so than any other European owl species, the Long-eared Owl often falls prey to other avian predators, including other owl species. Eagle Owls and Goshawks have been shown to regularly predate this species, while Tawny Owls are known to kill the former in an effort to claim dominance over a territory and thus, a food supply. Studies have shown a suite of diurnal raptors, ranging from Sparrowhawks and Peregrines to Red Kites to actively hunt Long-eared Owls and it is safe to say that the species does not have it easy when it comes to competition with rivals. On the reverse, some studies have recorded instances of Long-eared Owls predating Little Owls.

In trouble. Following a boom in the 19th Century, the British Long-eared Owl population declined substantially during the 20th Century. Anecdotal evidence has linked this to the resurgence of the Tawny Owl population following its suppression via persecution in earlier years and it is thought that the recovery of the larger owl may be an attributing factor. The fact that Long-eared Owls are flourishing in Ireland, from which Tawny Owls are absent, lends credence to this theory. It is accepted that Long-eared Owls can coexist with Tawnies when enough natural food is present; thus the decline of this species across Britain likely relates to a change in habitat and a corresponding decline in prey species. It is thought that only 1000 pairs of Long-eared Owl now remain in the UK.

Doting dads and diet description. During the owls breeding cycle, it is the male that does most of the hunting – depositing prey at the nest before egg-laying begins, providing the female with sustenance during incubation and providing the bulk of the prey for the fledgeling birds. Of the various prey items regularly taken by this species, voles, mice, rats and shrews are the most common, making up over 90% of the diet; though the species readily predate small birds when an opportunity presents itself. Bird species taken by Long-eared Owls include Wheatear, Meadow Pipit, Chaffinch, Reed Bunting and House Sparrow; although instances of predation on Pheasant poults have been recorded.

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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