Food scarce for PA’s owls

Our birds and animals are having a hard time finding food with a deep snow covering the ground. In Pennsylvania, we have seven species of owls; however, on occasion, during the winter months, an eighth species — the snowy owl — can be found. The owls are having a very hard time finding food due to their main food supply being hidden under the snow.

On a visit to the winter woods as the sun is beginning to set, a person could be fortunate to hear the calling of our largest owl, the great-horned owl. This calling is to attract a mate. Some experts say the difference between the calling of the male and the female can be detected because one call is distinctly higher pitched than the other. The mating season began in December and, by February, the female will be in the nest incubating the eggs. The great-horned owl population has been on the decline, causing some concern; however, there has been much concern for the long-eared owl.

The long-eared owl is listed on the Threatened List in Pennsylvania and also on the State Wildlife Action Plan, which has this owl listed as a high level of concern. The long-eared owl is about 16 inches long and weighs just under three quarters of a pound. Long-eared owls are found worldwide, including North America, with Pennsylvania near the southern range.

This owl is a very secretive bird, most likely seen during the winter months when gathered in small groups to roost in groves of pines and spruces.

The long-eared owl is a medium-sized owl, with prominent ear tufts and bright yellow-orange eyes set in a colored facial disk that is edged in black. Although this owl’s outward appearance is similar to the great-horned owl, the long-eared owl is about one-fifth of its size with more closely spaced ear tufts which point up (not out), a longer tail and no white throat patch.

All owls tend to be nighttime birds. However, the long-eared owl, which is found foraging in the dark between dusk and midnight, is more strictly nocturnal than other owls. Although prey consists of small mammals, birds, amphibians and insects, small rodents are the primary food item of the long-eared owls. These owls actively hunt rodents by quartering over open fields and forests and along edges. Long-eared owls typically fly low and steadily over the ground, searching methodically for prey, mostly by ear. Although small rodents are its favorite food, this owl is an opportunist which takes advantage of whatever is available. The long-eared owl’s diet can be varied and include small birds, reptiles and earthworms. This owl hunts and flushes flocks of roosting small birds, particularly house sparrows. The long-eared owl has also been known to sit on a fence post, stump or tree in the open, waiting for prey to either appear or make detectable sounds.

During the 1940s, the long-eared owl was fairly common. Today it is one of the least reported birds during the Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas projects. Part of the reason for the decline of this bird is the trend away from small farms, which had a mix of woodlands, hedgerows and fields, in favor of mechanical farming techniques and cleaner farming practices which are less inviting to long-eared owls.

Long-eared owls nest fairly early in the year. Although nesting could begin in March, it is usually by mid-April. These owls generally use a tree cavity or take over an abandoned stick nest of a crow, heron, hawk or squirrel. Some pairs apparently nest in the same woodlot where they roosted during the winter.

Although males perform flight displays over good nesting habitat, the female apparently chooses the nest site shortly before laying her eggs. Pairs apparently bond over the winter months, probably in conjunction with a communal roost.

Females sit very tightly on the nest with the male often perching nearby. Females normally lay four to six eggs that are pure white and oval in shape. The eggs are incubated by the female for 26-28 days. The nestlings, which are brooded for approximately two weeks, leave the nest for nearby branches in about three weeks.

Nesting is often completed before June. However in July, some females are still tending young in nest. It is very easy for nesting birds to be overlooked, even where there is a very active birding community. Long-eared owls are vulnerable to disturbance of roosts, so increased human activities near roosts have probably led to abandonment. These disturbed nests are vulnerable to a variety of nest predators, such as raptors, crows and raccoons. All of these can be significant predators of nests, young and adults.

Unlike some of our familiar owls, such as the great-horned, barred and eastern screech owls, that are permanent residents, the long-eared owl is migratory. Winter sightings are fairly rare here in Pennsylvania. The size and repeated use of communal roosts suggests the return of individuals to the same areas. These roosts should not be disturbed because they are important for the survival of the owl population during a stressful time of year. In North America, the record life-span is nine years. In Europe, one long-eared owl was recorded to have lived 27 years, nine months.


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