Photo: is it something we said? The long-eared owl (pictured) and short-eared owl’s ears are, in fact, located on the side of the head and what we see on top is merely the ‘tufts’, which can be lowered and raised.

 

Similar but so different: the long-eared and short-eared owls might look like close cousins, yet they differ profoundly in character, behaviour and habitat. Graham Wellstead introduces two species most of us don’t see often enough!

 

TWO owls – the long-eared owl (Asio otus) and short-eared owl (A. flammeus) – are both named after the ear tufts on their heads, which actually have nothing to do with ears. Their ears are situated on the side of the head like us, although they are flush to the head and hidden under a group of fine feathers, so there’s nothing to hold their glasses.

The question is, how do you tell them apart? Is the long-eared owl an owl with long ears or is it a long owl with ear tufts? And is the short-eared owl a short owl with ear tufts? You get my drift!

This may sound rather flippant, but long-eared owls do tend to sit up straight and tall, like a slim tawny, and short-eared owls are rather more squat by comparison. Most collections of birds of prey and owls have at least one pair like this, but being secretive, they are not great showmen and are frequently overlooked by visitors.

Seen together – which is not a very likely scenario – they are really quite different. If they are mistaken for any other owl, it is the tawny. This is very similar in colouring, but is quickly identified by two things:
it has no ear tufts and dark eyes. The long-eared and short-eared both have golden eyes.

Their preferred habitat is quite different and while both species may be seen in some areas, the long-eared prefers conifers, either long-established or maturing plantations. But these birds will also take up a territory in small isolated clumps and along shelter belts, where ivy-covered trees provided them with secluded roosting sites.

Long-eared owl

The long-eared nests in platform nests, often taking over old pigeon nests and those of crows and sparrowhawks. The female sits very tightly, while her partner usually sits close against the trunk of a nearby tree, making himself as inconspicuous as possible. Neither bird is easily flushed, which makes the nest site difficult to find.

This tight sitting is vital, because the long-eared is subject to predation more often than any of our native owls. As the goshawk population builds – they too are inhabitants of close conifer woodland – it is likely that predation will rise. Tawny owls take them occasionally and it is likely that their abundance in Ireland is due to the lack of tawny owls. (In 1900, an attempt was made to introduce them, but out of nine released, five were known to have been shot and the release was unsuccessful. I cannot say their presence would have made much difference, and now we may never know.)

Long-eared calls are distinctive: a triple “Ooh ooh ooh”, which is often quite soft and at one time gave rise to the belief that the woods were haunted by ghosts and the restless dead. It is the call that is most likely to tell you they are present, as well camouflaged, and quite secretive, they are very good at slipping away unnoticed.

Like most of the smaller owls, long-ears feed mainly on voles, mice, rats and small birds taken from roosting sites. Their clutch will fluctuate up and down in good and poor vole years, but the norm is four to five eggs. The young in the nest are covered in a white down and both the facial disc and the prominent ears appear quite early in their development, giving them a horned appearance.

The UK population appears to be decreasing, although still rated as being of Least Concern, with numbers estimated at 2,000-10,000 pairs, with the lower figure likely to be nearer the truth. It is the least known of our native owls, but is not restricted to the UK being found across Europe into Asia, North West Africa, plus southern Canada, West and Central America.

Short-eared owl

The short-eared owl is much more a bird of open heathland habitat, with good numbers on the East Coast and the North, including Scotland, though it is largely absent as a breeder in middle England, the South and South West. The population is augmented by an influx of winter migrants in most years, sometimes in large numbers. Almost worldwide in distribution, this species is found all over Europe, North Asia and North America with subspecies ranging as far as the Falkland Islands. It is an attractive bird, buff with blotched markings above and buff underside, unlike the striped long-eared.

In my own area, liberally dotted with heathland, I would have expected to see the species, but never have. Instead, it occurs regularly on the water meadows along the floodplain of the River Wey. Like its competitor the barn owl, it is mainly crepuscular, but in the winter can be seen regularly hunting during the day.

The short-eared is one of my favourites, yet in spite of several attempts, I have never had a pair that bred. They need space, I think, something hard to achieve in captivity. When I kept them, they were not particularly vocal. Calls, which some think sounds like a small dog, are uttered infrequently. When disturbed or annoyed, they also have a good range of hissing and spitting sounds.

Short-eared owls are generally ground-nesting birds and a clutch of five to eight is normal, although 12-14 eggs have been recorded in a good vole year. They will also take small birds, such as meadow pipit, young lapwing and young skylarks, and have been recorded taking young rabbits.

As well as the open heather heathland, they also do well in new conifer plantations, thriving on the voles, mice and shrews found in the course tussock grasses. Once the trees blanket out the understory of grasses and annual plants, the birds move on.

Due to its dependency on voles, it is difficult to give an estimate of short-eared numbers. While in good years the species can expand to about 10,000 pairs, poor years can bring it right down to roughly 1,000 pairs.

Graham Wellstead is a lifelong keeper of owls and other birds of prey.

 

For more features from Cage & Aviary Birds, click here.