Owls: Night Specters

Owls: Night Specters

By Wendy Lilly-Hansen

Do you know what happens at night in the wild? Of course, lots of critters are busy foraging for food while you are sleeping, but let’s talk about the stealthiest of night-time creatures: OWLS! In the Upper Valley, we have three species: the barn owl, the barred owl and the great horned owl. Let’s learn a little about each species and then how to find them in your backyard.

The barn owl (Tyto alba) is a pale bird with dark eyes and a distinct, heart-shaped facial disc. The facial disk is a feature common to all owls; it funnels sound into an owl’s ears. (I wish my own young “owls” had facial discs; maybe they would hear me better!)  Strictly nocturnal (active at night), barn owls quietly roost in the daytime in abandoned barns or tree cavities. They make an eerie, raspy call that sounds a lot like a hiss. To further enhance their eeriness, they have pale underparts, so they appear white – like a ghost — at night. Barn owls have the best hearing of any animal or bird ever tested and can accurately locate prey in complete darkness — even when the target is under snow or other cover!

Barred owls (Strix varia) may not hear as well as barn owls but they have big appetites — they can take prey as large as grouse! These owls get their name from their plumage; they are white- or buff-colored with dark, reddish-rusty splotches on the feathers which appear as bars across their chests. They are medium in size and nest in cavities or old platform nests. Chiefly nocturnal, they hunt and call during daylight hours; their call is a distinct series of loud hoots that roughly sounds like they’re saying, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.”

Two winters ago, a barred owl took up almost daily residence on a feeder pole in my backyard. It stayed for about two weeks and, of course, kept ALL the songbirds away! I didn’t miss the songbirds too much, though, because watching that owl every day was pretty cool! Generally, barred owls like their daytime privacy but, occasionally, you can see them roosting on branches, especially if you are and look UP!

The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is one of the largest owls at 22” tall (56cm). This species also takes large prey. Frequently, this includes skunks. Yes — SKUNKS! Great horned owls prey also on other large species like itself: the barred owl and peregrine falcon. Their color is buff to brown or black, with white throats and yellow eyes. This species is also a “hoot” owl; its call generally consists of three to eight loud, deep hoots. My favorite fact about these owls is that they nest in the winter. They mate, find a suitable nest site and hatch their owlets in the coldest season of the year! Cool!

How can you locate owls when you cannot see them? Since they nest and roost in trees, you can see evidence that an owl has spent time in an area by looking for white splotches on tree trunks, branches and on the ground around trees. These white splotches are owls’ “scat.” If you see any, you know that an owl has been there.

Look at the ground around this tree and you may also find a fuzzy, funny-looking bundle: an owl pellet. Owls cannot process the food they ingest so, they, well, regurgitate it in pellets. Pellets often have bone fragments and fur inside them. If you are lucky enough to find one, pull it apart gently and take a look — you may be able to identify bones (femur, ribs, vertebrae, even a skull) from the owl’s prey. If the pellet seems wet, it is fresh. If it is dry, the pellet has had some time to dry out.

To find owls in your backyard, spend quiet time in the woods. Look up into trees and listen. During the day, you might hear the barred owl. Go walking at dusk in and around open meadows and fields to see a barn or great horned owl. Look for an “owl prowl” to attend; these during these evening excursions into the woods, recordings of various owls are played outdoors to entice local birds to answer.

These activities are fun, educational and awe-inspiring, so get out there and HOOT!

With undergraduate and graduate degrees in Wildlife Biology and Management, Wendy Lilly-Hansen is always on the lookout for wildlife around her home in Grantham, N.H., where she lives with her husband, three children, two cats and a guinea pig.

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