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Barred Owl in a Tree
Barred Owl


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 

Types of Owls in Massachusetts

There are eight owl species that you may spot in Massachusetts. They're found in all sorts of habitats, including dense forests, wood lots, swamps, marshes, grasslands—and even residential neighborhoods! 

Great Horned Owl closeup
Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owls

These large owls can be found in a variety of habitats throughout most of the state. They are commonly heard in winter as they seek mates. 

download Great Horned Owl Call (298.9 kB)
Barred Owl in a Tree
Barred Owl © Lynn Pelland

Barred Owls

Can be found in most of Massachusetts other than the Islands, and can be heard calling year-round—listen for who cooks for you, who cooks for you all? 

download Barred Owl Call (112.8 kB)
Eastern Screech Owl red morph in fall tree © Christopher Peterson
Eastern Screech Owl © Christopher Peterson

Eastern Screech-owls

This owl is more common from the Connecticut River east, as it prefers deciduous forests. They call in late winter and early spring. 

download Eastern-screech Owl Call (270.3 kB)
Northern Saw-whet Owl on branch in early fall
Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owls

The smallest in the eastern US at 7-8 inches long. They're not often seen (or heard) in the wild but there is an active population.

download Northern Saw-whet Owl Call (220.5 kB)
Long-eared Owl in a tree
Long-eared Owl © Beth Finney

Long-eared Owls

This seldom-seen owl prefers conifer forests and dense thickets. Few sightings have been recorded in the state in the last two decades.

download Long-eared Owl Call (206.2 kB)
Short-eared Owl perched on a stick
Short-eared Owl © Craig Blanchette

Short-eared Owl

These owls hunt in open country and they nest on the ground. In Massachusetts, they breed only on the islands off Cape Cod. 

download Short-eared Owl Call (223.8 kB)
Barn Owl © Peter Sutton
Barn Owl © Peter Sutton

Barn Owls

They prefer to hunt in open country and readily nest in abandoned structures with convenient openings.

download Barn Owl Call (160.9 kB)
Snowy Owl © Nathan Goshgarian
Snowy Owl © Nathan Goshgarian

Snowy Owls

These large owls breed in the Arctic but can be seen in Massachusetts during the winter. Learn more about Snowy Owls

download Snowy Owl Call (65.5 kB)

Owl Behavior 

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. 

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. 

Owl 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 

Where Can I See 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. 

How Mass Audubon is Supporting Birds in Massachusetts     

Mass Audubon works at our wildlife sanctuaries and beyond to ensure that the nature of Massachusetts continues to thrive. By scientifically monitoring Massachusetts birdlife, Mass Audubon informs important conservation decisions and launches targeted initiatives to help at-risk species. In addition, fostering healthy habitats, supporting native species, and educating people about the importance of nature conservation is critical to our success. Learn more about our work

How You Can Support Birds in Massachusetts    

Mass Audubon supports birds like owls every day, but we couldn’t do it without the support of our 160,000+ members.      

Help support owls, and birds like them, by becoming a member today.      

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