Will County is home to eight of the 19 owl species living in North America. Among those eight species are short-eared owls and long-eared owls. Why are they called that? What’s the difference? Do owls even have ears?
Long- and short-eared owls both get their names from the feathery tufts on top of their heads. Those tufts can point straight up and look like the long ears of a rabbit, but they are not actually ears at all!
Owls do have ears, but not outer ears like us — or rabbits! Our outer ears help funnel sounds to our inner ear, where our brain is able to make sense of them. Owls just have small ear openings, like holes or slits, on either side of their head. So how do sounds find their way to those openings without an outer ear to catch them? Feathers!
Owls have thousands of feathers just on their faces! Around their eyes, the feathers fan out like a satellite dish. Those feathers, along with the others on their heads, help guide sounds to the ear holes. Those sounds can come in from all different directions and at different angles thanks to the different positions of the feathers. Owls can even tilt their feathers to track moving sounds!
If those tufts on the tops of their heads aren’t ears, what are they? Besides giving short- and long-eared owls a distinctive look of surprise, they are also used for communication.
Tufts pointing straight up means “I’m scared.” This can be a signal to other birds and animals that the owl is on high alert and ready to fight.
Tufts pointing forward means “I’m watching you!” It’s like when humans make a “V” with two fingers to point at their eyes and then point them at you.
Tufts completely flat to their heads means “Leave me alone.”
Tufts almost flat, just showing a bit means “I’m relaxed and comfortable.”
Now that we know how they got their names, let’s figure out how to tell these two owl species apart.
Short- and long-eared owls are considered medium-sized owls, which is about the same size as a crow. As their name suggests, long-eared owls have much longer tufts than short-eared owls. On long-eared owls those tufts are very distinct and usually visible, whereas on short-eared owls they can barely be seen at all.
Tuft size isn’t the only feather difference between the two. Short-eared owls have gray and yellow plumage (what we call all their feathers together), while long-eared owls’ plumage is mostly darker browns, oranges and blacks.
The feathers on their bellies also have different patterns. Short-eared owls have streaked bellies. Dark feathers look like vertical (up and down) stripes on the light feathers, like raindrops dripping down a window. Long-eared owls’ belly feathers look like darker, horizontal (side to side) stripes with streaks running down, like if you painted a line and then dragged your finger through it.
Words to know
Distinctly: In a way that is readily distinguishable by the senses.
Obstacle: Something that blocks one’s way or prevents progress.
Tuft: A collection of feathers, hairs, grass, threads, etc.
These color differences can usually be best seen on their faces. Short-eared owls have light-colored faces. Dark feathers make a triangle shape around their eyes, so they almost look they are wearing eyeliner and mascara that makes their bright yellow eyes pop! Long-eared owls have distinctly orange feathers fanning their faces with dark feathers that make a vertical stripe through their eyes.
These two species even have different postures! Short-eared owls tend lean forward when perched and look more relaxed. Long-eared owls perch standing straight up and down at attention. When stressed they “go skinny,” pulling their feathers in tight, stretching up tall and thin and fully raising their ear tufts. This may be a strategy to help them blend in with the branches of a tree.
These differences are well and good if you can spot one perched. But what about while they are flying? That’s a lot harder because they look so similar in flight, but there are a couple of differences. Short-eared owls have lighter underwings (the feathers underneath their wings), and their outer wings (the feathers on top of their wings) have strongly contrasting colors. Long-eared owls have browner underwings, and their outer wings are more evenly marked. The colors are less contrasting and more blended. Both species have bars on their tail feathers, but short-eared owls’ are darker and easier to see.
Darkening skies and owls’ ability to camouflage can make it hard to see the differences in their looks, but those obstacles won’t affect your ability to hear! The call of a long-eared is a single, low “hoot” that is sometimes repeated after a few seconds. Long-eared owls are usually silent, except during breeding season when they are trying to find a mate.
Calls vary for short-eared owls depending on what they are trying to say. A quick, repeating “poo-poo-poo” is their mating call, but “chiff-chiff-chiff” alerts others of danger. They will bark “ye-uck” or whine “screee” if they find themselves competing for food.
If you’re lucky enough to see an owl roosting, you might be able to use that as a clue to help identify it. Is the owl roosting on the ground in a grassland habitat? Does its appearance match the description above? Then you may have found a short-eared owl. They make a shallow depression in the soil called a scrape where they lay their eggs and raise their young.
Or is the owl you found roosting in a forest dense with trees? That’s the habitat long-eared owls prefer. They don’t make nests at all! Instead they reuse nests abandoned by other birds or roost in tree cavities or under cliffs.
Time of year can be another clue. Short-eared live in this area year-round, but long-eared owls usually only spend the winter here.
Spotting a long- or short-eared owls is pretty rare where we live, though some birdwatchers think that they are undercounted because of their excellent camouflage abilities. Winter is a great time to try your luck.
Owls are nocturnal, so they are mostly active at night. During winter, the night sky darkens much earlier than the rest of the year, so owls’ active time starts while we are still are still awake and active too.
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