National Geographic : 1980 Jan
LONG-EARED OWLS Masters of the Night ARTICLE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ART WOLFE FROM dusk to dawn it haunts the fields, a silent winged wraith with claws that kill. Eyes that mock darkness and ears that can hear a mouse squeak from afar search the night. At the slightest rustle from its earthbound prey, the hunter swerves in flight... and the long-eared owl strikes with uncanny accuracy. Long-eared? Well, not really. In fact, the hornlike tufts that give the bird its name have nothing to do with hearing. Instead they act as little semaphores, mirroring alertness or well-being and helping in a favorite disguise. Up they go as the bird squints its saucer eyes and compresses its feathers, stretching its body until, at first glance, it looks like nothing more than a stubby branch. In reality, this raptor has few known enemies besides man: only its own largest relatives, such as great horned owls. Encounters with man are uncommon camouflage and nocturnal habits make long-eared owls elusive. They can be found in woods near open fields over most of North America and Eurasia and in parts of Africa. A pale subspecies, the western long-eared owl (left), ranges from northwestern Canada to Mexico. You'll most likely see them at twilight, when they begin the night's hunt. Listen and you may hear a repertoire of calls that could make a mockingbird jealous, from hisses to hoots to catlike mews of alarm. I heard the whole gamut on the mid-April day when, 35 feet up in a pine tree, I stood eye to eye with a newly hatched owlet. As a wildlife photographer with a longtime interest in owls, I was not alarmed by the frantic parents stooping and flapping around me. Suddenly one dropped like a feather duster to the ground, fluttering with what looked like a broken wing. I went along with the ruse. When I stepped down, the bird lured me farther away, then took to the air, satisfied it had saved its young. After camping for several days at the foot of their pine, I could photograph the family without causing a stir. Several owl families lived in the grove I had chosen in the heart of Washington, my native state. Do long-eared owls display territorial possessiveness? Those I observed didn't seem to. This year, at least, they had no need for it. Miles of open fields, the birds' preferred hunting habitat, furnished an ample supply of rodents, their staple diet.