Although owls are among the best-known birds in folklore and literature, they remain something of a mystery to most people. It is not surprising, since they are mainly nocturnal (active at night) and hide by day. Plus, with 14 different bones in their neck, owls can turn their heads nearly three-quarters of the way around.
Most owls tend to focus their activities under a cloak of darkness, and do not begin hunting until shortly after dark. Long-eared owls and short-eared owls often begin hunting shortly before sundown, and can be seen coursing low over meadows in search of prey. During the day, most owls are likely to sleep or doze in the security of a thick evergreen or within the cavity of a tree.
Most species are most vocal just after sundown and then again just before sunrise. However, during courtship and the early breeding season, they often can be heard throughout the night. Some species, such as eastern screech-owl and barred owl, will vocalize during the day.
Owls eat their prey (largely rodents) whole and then regurgitate the indigestible fur and bones as pellets. Sometimes you can find dozens of these pellets under a single tree if a bird has a favorite roosting spot.
The size of the pellets is often suggestive of the species.
- Finger-sized usually means a smaller owl such as saw-whet or screech
- Thumb-size is likely to be a barred or long-eared owl
- Barn and great horned owls can cast pellets larger than golf balls
There are eight owl species that you may spot in Massachusetts. Crows, blue jays, and other songbirds can sometimes lead one to a roosting owl. The instinct among these birds to draw attention to predators by harassing it while making loud alarm calls is known as "mobbing." If a quiet approach is made, good views of the "mobbed" owl may be obtained.
Many owls will use the same roost tree for several days, and evidence of this can be found in "whitewash" on branches and on the ground, and owl pellets.
Perhaps one of the best ways to locate owls is to join an organized owling excursion. Many of Mass Audubon's wildlife sanctuaries offer these programs.