The long-eared owl is a medium-sized owl, slightly smaller and thinner than a tawny owl, but very secretive and difficult to see. Their most conspicuous feature are the ear tufts, which are not actually ears, but feathers found on either side of the middle of the head, raised when alarmed. The eye colour of the long-eared owl is a brilliant rusty orange. The facial disc is pale ochre-tawny with a darker rim and the bill is grey.
This is the most nocturnal of British owls and individuals are seldom seen hunting during daylight hours. Its habitat is forest (usually coniferous), close to open country suitable for hunting. Long-eared owls are buoyant fliers, gliding without a sound, even when their wings are flapping. Their flight is butterfly-like, often hovering and fluttering while looking for prey. The long-eared owl preys on small mammals like voles and mice, but it is also known to eat small snakes, birds and insects. To kill its prey, the long-eared owl bites the back of the neck and swallows the animal whole.
The long-eared owl’s breeding season is from February to July. It nests in trees, often using the old nests of other birds. The average clutch size is 3-4 eggs, and the incubation time averages from 25-30 days. Females remain with the young almost continuously for the first two weeks. An unusual characteristic of this species is its communal nesting in thickets during winter months, but with a colouring which resembles tree trunks and branches, they are difficult to find and often located by the presence of faeces or pellets.
- Length: 35-37cm
- Wingspan 84-95cm
- Weight: 210-370g
- Average Lifespan: 4-6 years
Classified in the UK as Green under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2015). Protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Long-eared owls are resident breeders in Scotland, but their numbers are bolstered by arrivals from the continent (e.g., Scandinavia, Easter Europe) during winter. In Scotland, this owl is predominantly found in the south, east and north-east. Breeding pairs have also been recorded, but in fewer numbers on the islands of the Inner Hebrides. They have not been reported in the north-west or on the Northern Isles, except as migrants or wintering birds on Shetland, Orkney and Fair Isle.
When to see
- The territorial call of the male can be heard up to 1 km away. It is a soft ‘hoo’, reminiscent of the sound made when blowing across the top of a milk-bottle. The phrase is repeated every 2-3 seconds, beginning rather weakly, but becoming stronger as the series of calls develops.
- 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 young birds.