by Liz Magnanti
Last winter offered some great opportunities to see many of the owl species we have here in Upstate New York. Owls are birds of prey that are primarily nocturnal. They are characterized by their large, forward facing eyes, circular flat faces, and sharp beaks and talons. Owls’ eyes are so large that they cannot move them in their sockets. In order to see in all directions, owls have specially adapted vertebrae that allow them to rotate their head 270 degrees.
Although owls will swallow their prey whole, they cannot digest the whole animal. The bones and fur of their prey are regurgitated as “pellets” that can often be found under the tree the owl is using as a roost. Owls are mostly nocturnal, solitary hunters. Their feathers are specialized to minimize the noise they make while flying. If you look at the tips of an owl feather, you will see that they are fringed, which cuts down noise when flying. Owls do not build nests, but instead take over nests and nesting cavities of other birds. During the day you are most likely to see an owl perched in a tree overseeing its hunting grounds.
There are eight different owl species that are commonly found in New York State. Some of these species are migratory and are only around seasonally, while others can be found here year round.
The smallest of the owls found in New York is the saw-whet owl. At seven inches in length, they are about the size of a soda can. Although small, these owls are fierce and dine on mice and other small rodents. Saw-whet owls are migratory, and can be found here in the early spring. They are known to roost in conifer trees and will nest in tree and man-made cavities. When searching for owls, look for their signature droppings, or “whitewash” on the trunk of trees. Usually this is easier to spot and the owl won’t be far away.
The eastern screech owl is the most common owl in our area. They can be either gray or brown, but in our area they are most commonly gray. Brown morphs are more common out west where they blend in better with the reddish-colored trees. Screech owls are eight to ten inches in length and will roost during the day in hollow trees or screech owl boxes. You may have head a screech owl and not even known it. Their call sounds like a horse’s whinny, not the traditional “hooo.”
The barred owl has populations that are expanding nationwide. They are large, with a length up to 24 inches and deep brown eyes. Their brownish-gray coloration gives them great camouflage in old growth forests, where they are most common. Their signature “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” call can be heard through forests at night, and sometimes during daylight hours.
Short-eared owls are migratory owls you may find here in the winter. They are most commonly seen in February at dusk flying low over farm fields where they hunt for small mammals. The short-eared owl is one of the most widespread owls you will find and can be found all over the world. Here in New York, however, this bird is endangered due to habitat loss.
Snowy owls have been widespread in our area this winter. Food scarcities bring them south where they hunt for small mammals and birds. These “interruptions,” when animals appear in large numbers outside their normal range, happen sporadically some winters. The best places to look for snowy owls are around the lakeshore, where they stop to rest after crossing Lake Ontario, and airports.
Long-eared owls are very secretive and hard to find. They roost high up in evergreen trees and blend in very well with the trunks. These migratory birds are mostly here seasonally, when they pass through in March and April. They rarely nest here but when they do they tend to take over crow nests.
The barn owl is a species rarely found upstate. They will inhabit and nest in barns, as their name implies, but are a more southern species. They tend to prefer an agricultural setting or field, which makes them prone to nesting in barns. Barn owls have pale feathers, long wings, and dark eyes. They are widespread throughout the world but, just as short-eared owls, they are declining due to habitat loss.
Great horned owls are perhaps the most distinct-looking owl we have. With a length of 25 inches and a wingspan of 55 inches, it’s no wonder how this owl got its name. Their ear tufts, or “horns,” are actually feathers and not ears at all. The call of the great horned owl is five distinct hoots that sound like “You awake? Me too.” This large owl is known to attack prey larger than itself and is one of the only natural predators of the bald eagle.
At any time of year you may be lucky enough to have an encounter with one of these amazing birds. The great horned owl nests early in the year and will already have nestlings at this time. Other species do not nest until April or May. As the weather gets warmer, listen for their calls late into the night as they search for mates.
Liz Magnanti is manager of The Bird House in Brighton.