About Owls

Great Horned Owl perched among evergreen branches in winter © John Grant
Great Horned Owl © John Grant

Owls are among the best-known birds in folklore and literature, yet they remain something of a mystery to most people. That's not surprising, though, since they are mainly nocturnal (active at night) and hide during the day.

Their striking physical appearance and unique behaviors make it easy to understand why owls have inspired centuries of myth and legend across cultures. Owls also possess some amazing adaptations—like the 14 different neck bones that allow them to turn their heads nearly three-quarters of the way around.

In fact, it's hard not to be amazed by owls!

Species

In Massachusetts, there are eight owl species that you may be lucky enough to spot. They're found in all sorts of habitats like dense forests, wood lots, swamps, marshes, grasslands—and even residential neighborhoods.

Activity

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 just before sundown, and they 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 inside a tree cavity.

Northern Saw-whet Owl on branch in early fall
Northern Saw-whet Owl

Sounds

Most species are especially vocal just after sunset 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 the Eastern Screech Owl and Barred Owl, will vocalize during the day too.

Pellets

Owls eat their prey (typically 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 a Saw-whet or Eastern Screech
  • Thumb-size is likely to be a Barred or Long-eared Owl
  • Barn and Great Horned Owls can produce pellets larger than golf balls

Locating Owls

Crows, Blue Jays, and other songbirds can sometimes lead you to a roosting owl. These birds engage in an instinctual behavior known as "mobbing" where they draw attention to a predator by harassing it while making loud alarm calls. If you approach the scene quietly, 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 "owl prowl" program at one of Mass Audubon's wildlife sanctuaries!