Short-eared-owl enthusiasts will be disappointed that their bird is not bird of the week. The number of short-eared owl enthusiasts has increased in the last 10 days, I can say with confidence, after Dave Lambeth, the dean of local birders, led a field trip to grasslands northwest of Grand Forks. He had advertised short-eared owls, and short-eared owls appeared, bringing excited responses from a score of birders lined up along a rural gravel road.
Yet this week, the title goes to the long-eared owl. The unpopularity of the choice was well expressed by Brad Dokken, who handles this column as part of his duties as outdoor editor of the Herald. “I kind of figured the annoying bugger might be inspiration for a bird column,” he wrote when I delivered this week’s drawing.
This dismissal is rather harsh, I believe. The long-eared owl is a close relative of the short-eared owl – no surprise, given their names. The two species are similar in many ways, and bird guides often contain quite detailed descriptions in order to aid identification.
The “ears” are an obvious difference. These are not real ears at all, but rather tufts of feathers that help channel sound to the actual ears, which are hidden under plumage. These ears are different on each side of the head. This allows the birds to “echolocate,” a technique that helps them hone in on prey species by sound rather than by sight.
The feather tufts, almost indistinguishable in the short-eared owl and prominent in its long-eared cousin, account for subtle but important differences between the species. They also call attention to the adaptations that even a casual observer can find among species in our area. Bringing attention to this diversity should build interest in the natural world, which is the mission of this column.
The short-eared owl was bird of the week just six months ago, in mid-February, when the column offered suggestions about how to find wintering short-eared owls.
So, it’s someone else’s turn.
Of course, I was pleased that Lambeth’s field trip led birders to the same area I’d mentioned – even though finding short-eared owls is a bit dicey at any time. Lambeth and I were both careful not to guarantee sightings.
This leads to one important consequence of the difference in the birds’ “ears.” Short-eared owls are birds of open country. They are known to have somewhat less acute hearing and somewhat better sight than long-eared owls. The first is probably the consequence of the shorter tufts, which don’t funnel as much sound to the bird; the latter may be an ability as the birds evolved in open country.
This has an important consequence for human encounters with each of these owl species. Short-eared owls nest in open country on the ground. Long-eared owls are birds of small tree plantings and forest edges. They commonly nest in open structures in fairly dense but not necessarily extensive cover.
Hunting in cover requires a different set of skills than hunting in the open. Better hearing means greater hunting success in a cramped environment, particularly because long-eared owls are more likely to hunt at night, while short-eared owls are often active while the sun shines, especially in the morning and evening.
Choice of habitat brings long-eared owls into contact with people on a more casual basis, because people create the kind of habitats that long-eared owls prefer, while short-eared owls nest and hunt in areas that humans don’t often visit.
Yet these species have a remarkably similar range across the Northern Hemisphere. They must have evolved together, each securing its own niche in the natural world.
This is even more remarkable, since the two species depend largely on the same prey, small rodents whose numbers can fluctuate quite widely from season to season. This makes the owls nomadic rather than migratory, which is why neither Lambeth nor I would guarantee finding the owls.
They follow the food, often members of the genus Microtus – a name familiar to every freshman biology student. The genus of voles is large, and its members occur in a number of habitat types, both open grasslands and the cover provided by shelterbelts and isolated copses of trees. Such copses are a characteristic feature of the landscape of northwestern North Dakota, where I grew up and grew interested in birds. My first long-eared owl scared me proper when it suddenly emerged in a grove of poplars at the south end of our cow pasture.
Dokken’s experience was somewhat less pleasant, by his testimony. It involved a persistent noise that continued throughout the night at his family’s property in northwest Minnesota. He asked about possibilities, and I suggested several. It was Lambeth who nailed the sound, however – a fledgling long-eared owl begging for food. The noise was loud enough to keep Dokken awake, so it must have attracted the attention of its parents, who certainly have “ears” to hear it.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.