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 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.
Can be found in most of Massachusetts other than the southeast, and can be heard calling year-round—listen for who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?
This owl is more common from the Connecticut River east, as it prefers deciduous forests. They call in late winter and early spring.
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.
This seldom-seen owl prefers conifer forests and dense thickets. Few sightings have been recorded in the state in the last two decades.
These owls hunt in open country and they nest on the ground. In Massachusetts, they breed only on the islands off Cape Cod.
They prefer to hunt in open country and readily nest in abandoned structures with convenient openings.
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.
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
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.
Upcoming Owl Programs
Fall Lecture and Field Series- Owls of Massachusetts
North River Wildlife Sanctuary, Marshfield
Friday, December 15
Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, Plymouth
Saturday, December 16
Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary, Marshfield
Thursday, January 4
Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Lincoln
Friday, January 5
Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, Plymouth
Thursday, January 11
Owl Prowl for Adults
Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary, Worcester
Friday, January 12