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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide
Species Group: Bird
The long-eared owl is a slender, crow-sized owl with long “ear” tufts on its head. They are often visible when the owl perches. The ear tufts are clusters of feathers that aid in camouflaging the bird. The true ears are located on either side of the head next to the round rusty-orange facial disk. The breast feathers are brown with irregular white spotting. The belly is buff and crosshatched with dark brown markings. The upperparts are heavily marked with black and brown with gray, buff, and white tones. The wings are long and rounded with a buff-orange patch at the base of the outer primaries on the upperwing. The flight feathers are grayish with dusky spots.
There is a small white patch on the throat. Their bill is black. The tail is buff colored with brown bands. The legs and feet are feathered. The talons are black. The iris is yellow to golden-yellow. Sexes are alike in plumage. Males are often slightly paler than females.
The long-eared owl relies on its plumage (cryptic coloration) to camouflage itself within its surroundings. When disturbed, the owl may elongate its body and raise its ear tufts to resemble a broken branch or part of a tree trunk. Long-eared owls also snap their bills if threatened. Vocal activity is primarily restricted to the breeding season when males emit a series of deep hoo calls during the night. Long-eared owls are skilled fliers that can maneuver among trees and migrate long distances.
Distribution and Habitat
The Long-eared owl breeds throughout North America from southern Canada south to California, northern Texas, and Virginia. During the winter they can be found in suitable habitat throughout the contiguous United States.
In New Jersey, breeding Long-eared owls are rare and can be found in north-western, north-central, and south-western portions of the state.
Long-eared owls require a mosaic of wooded and open habitats. Both roosting and nesting sites may be located within dense stands of either natural or ornamental coniferous trees. Deciduous trees and impenetrable tangles of vines also provide cover for these owls. High densities of foliage are required at nesting and roosting sites to provide camouflage and protection from wind, cold temperatures, and precipitation. Roosting and nesting woodlots are located adjacent to upland or wetland open terrain. Open areas, such as fallow fields, farm fields, and marshes, are used for hunting and are integral components of long-eared owl habitat.
Long-eared owls primarily eat small mammals. They eat voles, mice, shrews, and rats. Sometimes they eat songbirds, snakes, and even insects.
They are nocturnal and rely on their strong eyesight, excellent hearing, and silent flight to locate and capture their prey. Owls can pinpoint the location of their prey, sometimes even under deep snow, by using their facial discs to funnel sound into their ears. Serrations on the leading edge of their wings mute any sound of wind passing over their wings. They also consume prey whole. Hours later pellets are regurgitated that contain indigestible bones and fur. Pellets sometimes litter the ground under common roost sites. They can also be dissected to identify what owls eat.
Pair bonds form at winter roosts. At their breeding territories the male performs aerial displays. He flies high within the forest and makes a loud clapping sound with his wings. The female calls back to the male while perched below. Males also make repeated hoo hoo calls to attract females. Pairs are known to use the same nest site, year after year. Sometimes loose nesting colonies are formed.
Long-eared owls do not build their own nests. They use old hawk or crow nests to nest. On rare occasions they have been known to nest in cavities, on the ground, and on old squirrel nests. In mid-April to mid-May females lay four to five round white eggs at daily intervals. The eggs are incubated for 25 to 30 days and hatch asynchronously . The female rarely leaves the nest. Her mate hunts and delivers prey to the nest during this time. When the young hatch they are totally dependent on the adults. For the first five days they cannot even open their eyes. The older and stronger young only survive if food is scarce. After 3 to 4 weeks the young “branch out” from the nest but cannot fly. The young separate themselves to avoid being seen by predators. Sometimes the adults risk death or injury to lure predators away from the nest site. At 5 to 6 weeks the young begin to fly. The adults continue to feed the young until they are around 10 to 11 weeks old. Sometimes the family of owls will remain together though the winter months.
Current Threats, Status, and Conservation
Prior to the 20th century, the clearing of eastern forests for agriculture resulted in a mosaic of farm fields and woodlands and may have enabled long-eared owl numbers to exceed pre-settlement populations. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, long-eared owls bred at scattered locations in New Jersey from Sussex County to Salem County.
However, by the mid-1900s, vegetative succession, development of open and forested areas, and modern agricultural practices greatly reduced habitat for these owls in the state. The number of active winter roosts and the number of birds per roost has declined since the 1950s. Despite extensive surveys in the late 1980s, the number of known breeding pairs has remained extremely low. Long-eared owls are currently absent from many former nest sites that were occupied before the 1960s. Due to these declines the Long-eared owl was listed as a threatened species in 1991.
The major threat to Long-eared owls has been development. It is responsible for the loss of traditional roosting and nesting sites.
Text derived from the book, Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of New Jersey. 2003. Originally written by Sherry Liguori. Originally edited by B.E. Beans & L. Niles. Edited and updated in 2010 by Ben Wurst.
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