Chasing Whoo?

by Nancy Horning | Nov 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Long-eared Owl in tree
Long-eared Owl. Photo © Dreamstime.com.

Ice-crusted snow crunched, warning the woods of the coming intruders. Blue Jays screamed somewhere. “Are they telling the other animals we are coming?” wondered one of the younger children.

Ducking under branches and stepping over them, our little group wound its way along the trails. Suddenly we all stopped. Three ghostly pale shapes slipped through the tangle of hawthorn, wild apple, and wild plum trees. The mob of Blue Jays shrieked excitedly.

What was it? Grouse? No, hardly. These shadowy creatures flew much too mysteriously—silently. Owls! It had to be. No wonder the Blue Jays…. We listened carefully. Running, ducking, dodging thorns, we slipped along the trail after the sound.

Gliding among the gray branches came the birds, driven by their flock of tormentors. One alighted on a branch for a few seconds. An owl, sure enough. And those are ear tufts, so it’s not a Barred Owl. Too small to be a Great Horned Owl either.

The jays followed the owls. Occasionally they were silent, and only chickadees and woodpeckers hopped around and called their cheery notes. Several times we paused, listening.

Rounding a curve, I glimpsed a pale flash. Blue Jays were suddenly aroused. “There was an owl again!” I gasped.

“Where? Where?” the others asked. But the noiseless creature had already disappeared.

Later, coming back, we heard screaming Blue Jays and glimpsed them gathering. More jays flew to the spot. The owls!
Following the ruckus, we spied the owls themselves. One flew overhead, enabling us to get a good look at the underside. Very pale, almost white, with some dark markings. What kind of owl is that? Not Barred, not Great Horned, hardly a screech-owl.

The owls disappeared. Hurrying for home, we discussed what species the owls might be. Any owls without ear tufts were obviously out.

As soon as we reached home, we hauled out all three bird guides we own. Leaving out the Great Horned Owl left us with three choices of “eared” owls: screech-owl, Long-eared Owl, and Short-eared Owl. Hmm. Short-eared is an owl of open country. This was in a brushy, tangled woods. Short-eared has ear tufts so small they’re rarely seen. This owl had more obvious ones. Wings tilted upward like a harrier’s. Not really. These owls held their wings flat. So…screech-owl or Long-eared? Screech-owl doesn’t look quite right and it’s almost too small. That leaves Long-eared…which often roosts in groups. There were three owls, and they seemed to be disturbed from roosting. Measurements about right…prefers woodland thickets, tangles, conifer groves…. Yes, there were even some white pines in the general area we first saw them.

Long-eared Owl it must be!

I also learned some owls have one ear slightly higher and larger than the other. The owl can tell exactly where a sound comes from by the difference in timing that sounds reach the ears.

And another fact…those big circles around an owl’s eyes also help it to hear! The feathers in the discs are attached to muscles that control the shape of the owl’s ears. Moving the feathers helps locate sounds.

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