The long-eared owl and great horned owl are two of North America’s most elusive owl species. They nest in thick foliage during the day, camouflaged by their earthy plumage, and hunt under the cover of darkness. They are hard to study and are rarely seen, especially at night. Scientists can tag them, but what happens in the evening has remained a mystery until now.

Long eared owlThe Owl Research Institute and explore.org, a philanthropic media organization, have hatched a plan to get humans into the nests of both owls this mating season. With small, unobtrusive HD cameras installed just a few yards away from the nests, viewers can now watch from any Internet-enabled device, 24 hours a day.

And the timing couldn’t be better, as both nests are home to budding owl families. The great horned owl has already hatched a few chicks and viewers are keeping a close eye on the long-eared owl nest because eggs have just hatched there. The long-eared owl chicks (seen at right) resemble Ewoks — with their fuzzy appearance and piercing eyes —but this will soon change as their big bird feathers grow in.

About the birds

The long-eared owl is one of North America’s most rare owl species. With erect “ear” tufts positioned at the center of its head, this owl’s ears are offset, allowing for better hearing when locating prey. Its plumage is brown and buff with heavy mottling and barring over most of the body, with a distinguishing white X across its face. The long-eared owl is a buoyant flier, gliding noiselessly over open fields.

The great horned owl is the largest owl in North America, known for its brownish-grey, tawny plumage, large distinctive head, brilliant yellow eyes and long wings. The ear tufts are positioned on the top side of the head. The great horned owl is equipped with precise hearing and keen vision to detect prey accurately at dusk and in the dark of night. Great horned owls have been known to live up to 20 years in the wild. You can watch the live feed of the great horned owl nest below:

Baby facts

  • The great horned owl female began her nest duties around March 1; the long-eared female arrived a couple of weeks later.
  • Great horned owls can lay one to four eggs, but two to three eggs are more common. The long-eared owl averages three to four eggs.
  • The chicks hatched around the first week of April.
  • In both species, only the female will incubate eggs and brood chicks in the nest while the male provides food and protection.
  • The hatchlings are covered with pure white down which is replaced in the first three weeks by long, soft, grayish buff down, and their flight feathers are soon to follow.
  • At 7 weeks, owlets are capable of short flights though fledglings will remain with their parents for most of the summer.
Long eared owls in a nest

Photo: Christina Nealson

New opportunities for scientists

Denver Holt, founder and president of the Owl Research Institute, echoes the public’s enthusiasm for the live cams. “In more than 20 years of studying owls, this is the first time we’ll have such close access to them during their most active hours,” Holt said. This is an exciting time for ornithologists, as these 24-hour HD live cams will shed light on many behavioral mysteries. Since 1988, Holt and his team have researched more than 10 owl species in the United States (and supported additional research in other countries), spearheading some of the longest-term studies ever documented on individual species.

While the population of great horned owls is considered stable, “Long-eared populations are declining – probably throughout their range in North America – but it’s difficult to pinpoint why because they are so nocturnal, it’s difficult to observe them closely. The opportunity to observe nighttime behavior as it relates to the nest will be a huge step in filling in the gaps.”

There is hope that these live feeds will inspire a spirit of conservation among viewers. “Owls are one of the most widely recognized groups of animals in the world. And because of this popularity, we can use owls and what knowledge we have about them as indicators of their environments, and to inspire conservation.”

Written by AJ Lindelow for explore.org.

Photo: Christina Nealson

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