A Bird’s Tale

The Most Mysterious Maine Owl?

Posted:  Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 11:15am

We wrote recently about the tiny saw-whet owl and how nighttime banding has revealed that larger numbers than anyone previously knew migrate through many places where this species is rarely seen or heard. But there is another owl that nests in Maine that is even more mysterious and little known: the long-eared owl. Roughly two or three times the size of the diminutive saw-whet owl, the long-eared owl is still quite small—nowhere near the size of our biggest owl, the great-horned. Like the great-horned owl, though, the long-eared owl also has feather tufts that resemble horns in silhouette. Owl ears are really just holes in the skull with no external appendages, unlike the awkward looking things that stick out from the side of our human heads or the triangular ears of dogs and cats. In fact, the so-called “ear tufts” on owls are not even close to the ears and have nothing to do with hearing!

For identification purposes, the presence or absence of the “horns” or “ear tufts” on an owl is very helpful in telling species apart. The common barred owl has a smooth, round head with no “horns.” The same is true of the saw-whet owl and the short-eared owl (the latter has tiny feather tufts but they are  noticeable most of the time). Here in Maine, only the great-horned owl and long-eared owl have “ear tufts” but on long-eared owls they are even longer and more pronounced than on great-horned owls.

Despite the fact that long-eared owls apparently nest in Maine, most Maine birders will have seen more snowy owls (which nest in the Arctic and only sporadically visit Maine) than long-eareds. We have heard long-eared owls a few times in Maine, but the only ones that we have ever actually laid eyes on were in other states, including, surprisingly, one in the middle of Central Park! It is interesting to note that on eBird there are less than 30 records of long-eared owl. Many birders have never seen the species or at best have seen it only once or twice over decades of birding in the state. Most New England states and several other eastern U.S. states list long-eared owls as endangered, threatened, or special concern as it is thought that the species has suffered a long-term decline over the last 50-100 years.

Three birders from Vermont wrote in eBird about their efforts to learn more about long-eared owls in that state. They initially did 60-80 owling visits to places that they thought might harbor long-eared owls but never found a single bird. The next year, one of the birders had learned more about what the birds seemed to prefer as nesting habitat in other states—groves of red cedar near open fields—and they focused on searching these. Sure enough, they immediately began finding long-eared owls, including a number of nests!

In most places, birders are most likely to see long-eared owls when they are in winter roosts, often in groves of pine, spruce, or other coniferous trees near open areas. Sometimes multiple individual long-eareds will roost together; sometimes long-eared and short-eareds roost together. The birds in these winter roosts are apparently migrants from farther north but like so much about these birds, little is known about the distance of their migratory movements. Banding has shown occasional very long distance movements of the European form of long-eared owls, and migrants have been documented on Maine islands over the years. Migrants have even occurred on the Dry Tortugas between Florida and Cuba, and there is an old specimen record of one that made it to Cuba in 1932!

Within the last few years, one was spotted in winter at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station when it flew up from near a short-eared owl. Another was seen roosting in trees at Biddeford Pool, and there are other scattered sightings from around the state over the last 30-40 years. But not many!

Hopefully we will sometime soon have the pleasure of finding one to see ourselves here in our home state!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the just-released “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.”