Meet the Long-Eared Owl and the Short-Eared Owl

Updated: Feb. 23, 2024

Learn how to tell the difference between a long-eared owl and a short-eared owl. Find out where you can spot these stunning birds of prey.

Long-Eared Owls

long eared owlCourtesy Alisha Walden
Long-eared owls are secretive and quiet.

Nearly a twin to the great horned owl, the long-eared owl sports similar feather tufts, yellow eyes and orange facial disks. Long-eared owls have a taller look, thanks to more slender bodies and extended facial disks. In addition, the chest patterns on this species are more checkered in appearance than on great horned owls.

Some long-eared owls are year-round residents of southern Canada, while others make long migrations, overwintering as far south as central Mexico. At times these winter birds will congregate in flocks with as many as 100 birds in one location.

“I thought I would take my camera out on a cold winter’s day and with luck I ran into this beautiful long-eared owl (above),” says reader Alisha Walden.

long-eared owlsCourtesy Evelyn Johnson
A group of long-eared owls overwintering in Wisconsin

Did you know: The two large feather tufts on top of their heads are not ears and they have nothing to do with hearing. Scientists believe they simply help camouflage the owls.

Find out if owl sightings have special meaning.

Short-Eared Owls

short eared owlCourtesy Paul Blossom
Short-eared owl in the Lake Champlain Valley region of Vermont

Despite being a widespread owl species found on five continents, short-eared owl populations are trending downward. This decline mirrors the loss of the wide-open grassland habitats on which they depend.

Their preference for buoyantly cruising over open meadows, coupled with their fondness for being active at dusk, means that short-eared owls can be easier to spot than most owls. Short-eared owls are even found in Hawaii, where the pueo is a subspecies of this flappy flier.

09 Jefferystedner Bbxjan19Courtesy Jeffery Stedner
These owls fly low over open grasslands when hunting for voles, mice and other small rodents.

“Short-eared owls migrate to a national wildlife refuge near my house. I’ve been slowly practicing my panning and focus skills on them. A few years ago, I bought camouflage clothing to blend in with their environment better. It worked! This short-eared owl (above) came very close to me as I stood there disguised as snow,” says reader Jeffery Stedner of Bloomingburg, New York.

Go up north to see a great gray owl.