Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Some may argue that humans never “find” owls; owls find us, and our interactions with them are nearly always on their terms. When we chance upon them in the daylight or listen in on their hooting, barking nocturnes, they are almost certainly aware of us before we perceive them.

The long-eared owl is a year-round resident of Malheur Refuge, but its nocturnal habits and cryptic coloration ensure that it is seldom detected by human observers. This medium-sized owl is active mainly at night, when it flies low over fields and grasslands in search of prey including small rodents, bats, birds and reptiles.

The “ears” of owls are in fact feathery tufts, not true extensions of the ears. It was once thought that these tufts aided owls in locating nocturnal prey by sound, but biologists today think that the tufts serve either to communicate non-verbally or as a camouflage mechanism, helping to break up the owl’s outline as it roosts by day in thick cover.

During the day long-eared roost in trees adjacent to hunting areas, such as in stands of willow or juniper. In winter long-eared owls are known to roost communally—sometimes a dozen or more (even up to fifty!) individuals have been found using the same general area. Long-eared owls usually roost close to the trunks of trees, and in Western junipers they effectively disappear behind the tree’s bushy gray-green boughs.

Long-eared owls are sporadic nesters at Malheur Refuge: some years several nests are reported, other years none. Availability of prey— particularly small rodents such as mice and voles—partially explains this. Another explanation relates to suitable nesting habitat. Long-eared owls in our region almost always appropriate abandoned black-billed magpie nests for their own use; the local abundance of breeding magpies may dictate how many long-eared owls nest in a given area. Ornithologist Robert Ridgway encountered long-eared owls regularly during his explorations of the West in the 1800s and noted the same magpie-owl relationship:

“Seldom, if ever, did we enter a willow-copse of any extent, during our explorations of the West, without starting one or more specimens of this Owl from the depths of the thicket. This was the case both near Sacramento and in the Interior, and in summer as in winter. In these thickets they find many deserted nests of the Magpie, and selecting the most dilapidated of these, deposit their eggs on a scant additional lining. This practice is so general, so far as the birds of the Interior are concerned, that we never found the eggs or young of this species except as described above.”

Keen of sight and hearing, often cryptically patterned and hidden by day, owls avoid detection because their lives depend on it. Many species rely on stealth to capture prey; most are equally reliant on camouflage to avoid becoming prey themselves. Thus, it is important to avoid causing undue stress to roosting owls: If you find one, it’s likely seen you first, and further pursuit could jeopardize its safety.