Quick facts

Common name: long-eared owl

Scientific name: Asio otus

Family: Strigidae (owls)

Habitat: coniferous or mixed woodland

Diet: voles, mice, small birds

Predators: no natural predators

Origin: native

What do long-eared owls look like?

The long-eared owl has mottled orange-brown feathers, distinct white eyebrows and striking orange eyes. It has large head feathers or ‘ear tufts’ which become raised when the owl is alarmed; normally the tufts are flattened.

It is medium in size, with a wingspan of 95cm. It looks deceptively long and thin when in flight, but is actually no bigger than a woodpigeon.

Not to be confused with: the short-eared owl. When the long-eared owl's head feathers are flattened, it can be confused with the short-eared owl. However, the short-eared has yellow eyes and is paler in colour.

long-eared owl in flight with prey in its talons

Credit: John Bridges / WTML

What do long-eared owls eat?

The long-eared owl enjoys a diet made up of small mammals, particularly voles and mice. During the winter when food is scarce, it has been known to eat small birds. When hunting, it sweeps through open country, flying to and fro in a zig-zag pattern while scanning the ground for food. Once its prey has been spotted, the owl swoops down and bites the back of the prey's head, immobilising it instantly.

Did you know?

In winter, long-eared owls often roost in a group, which is known as a ‘parliament of owls’.

How do long-eared owls breed?

The long-eared owl is extremely elusive during the breeding season, which takes place from February onwards. It will nest in conifer trees, often rearing its young in the disused nests of other birds. It is also known to use tree hollows and artificial nesting baskets.

It lays a clutch of three to five eggs, and after around 25–30 days the chicks will hatch. The chicks are then ready to fledge 30 days after hatching, although they will still need to be fed by their parents for up to two months.

long-eared owl in woodland

Credit: David Kjaer / naturepl.com

Where do long-eared owls live?

Long-eared owls live in mixed and coniferous woodland, preferring the cover of dense, shrubby thickets, hedgerows and conifer trees. They are found across the UK, although there are fewer birds in Wales and the South West.

Did you know?

Despite being called the ‘long-eared’ owl, the tufts on its head aren’t actually ears at all; they are simply used to make it look bigger!

Signs and spotting tips

The best time to spot long-eared owls is when they are on migration, travelling to coastal areas, or when they are travelling to or from roosting sites during the winter. As they are nocturnal – and said to be the most nocturnal of all the owls – and hunt at night, this would be the best time to see them on the wing. Listen out for their sombre ‘hoo, hoo’ hoot during summer evenings.

Long-eared owl call

Audio: Peter Boesman / xeno-canto.org

long-eared owl chicks in nest

Credit: Paul Johnson / Alamy Stock Photo

Threats and conservation

The long-eared owl is believed to be abundant in the UK; however it is difficult to determine exact populations due to the bird’s elusive nature. It has been suggested that long-eared owls are declining in some areas due to habitat loss and an increase in competition with the tawny owl.

Did you know?

There is thought to be a larger population of long-eared owls in Ireland, which could be because the tawny owl (the long-eared owl’s biggest competitor) is not present there.