8 Owls in Massachusetts

8 Owls in Massachusetts

Nestled amidst the picturesque landscapes of Massachusetts lies a realm of enchantment after dusk—a world ruled by owls. These majestic nocturnal predators have long captivated the imagination of nature enthusiasts and researchers alike, adding an air of mystique to the Bay State’s diverse ecosystem. From the dense woodlands to the coastal marshes, Massachusetts provides a rich and varied habitat for these remarkable avian predators.

This article embarks on a captivating journey into the lives of owls that call Massachusetts home. Through the veil of darkness, we uncover the unique adaptations, haunting calls, and intriguing behaviors that define these elusive creatures. Delving into their ecological importance and the conservation efforts underway, we aim to shed light on the vital role these enigmatic birds play in maintaining the delicate balance of nature.

1. Eastern Screech-Owl

  • Scientific name: Megascops asio
  • Life span: 8 to 10 years
  • Size: 16 to 25 cm (6.5 to 10 in)
  • Weight: 121 to 244 g (4.25 to 8.5 oz)
  • Wingspan: 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in)
  • Status: Least Concern           

The Eastern Screech-Owl, remarkably adaptable, thrives across Eastern North America and even Mexico. Unfazed by human activity, it flourishes in urban landscapes. With reddish hues in the south and grey tones in the north, these color variations likely stem from their woodland habitats.

This Eastern Screech-Owl doesn’t seem to mind its picture getting taken

The Eastern Screech-Owl, known for its solitary nature, forms breeding pairs in April through bonding rituals. They nest in dark, dense forest tree trunks. While mostly monogamous, some males have been observed mating with multiple females, leading to eviction and a new clutch of eggs.

As an adaptable predator, the owl preys on various animals, including small mammals, insects, reptiles, birds, and amphibians. It occasionally consumes fruits and berries. Using its exceptional hearing, the owl hunts primarily at night. Indigestible parts are regurgitated in the form of pellets.

The Eastern Screech-Owl is not endangered, classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN. Yet, it faces risks from prey poisoning and habitat disruption.

2. Great Horned Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Life span: 25 – 50 years
  • Size: 43 to 64 cm (17 to 25 in)
  • Weight: 1200 to 1600 g (2.64 to 3.52 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 91 to 153 cm (3ft 0in to 5ft 0in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Great Horned Owl, adorned with brown-speckled feathers, thrives in various habitats such as deserts, wetlands, grasslands, urban areas, and forests. As nocturnal creatures, they expertly camouflage themselves.

Beyond North America, these owls extend their range as far south as Brazil. Interestingly, their distinctive “horns” are feather tufts called plumicorns, potentially serving as visual markers or a form of communication with other birds, though their exact function remains mysterious.

A suspicious-looking Great Horned Owl has spotted the cameraman

The Great Horned Owl, an early breeder in North America, begins its selection process as early as January. Male owls take the lead, searching for ideal nesting spots and wooing potential mates through elaborate aerial displays and stomping on chosen sites. Rather than building their nests, they opt for abandoned ones left by large birds like eagles or hawks, found in diverse locations like caves, cliffs, and cacti.

These owls are opportunistic predators with an adaptable diet. In Massachusetts, they primarily feast on small mammals like voles, mice, and rabbits, but also consume birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects based on seasonal and prey availability. Sharp talons and beaks aid them in capturing prey, while nocturnal habits aid in hunting.

Although not threatened, the Great Horned Owl population in North America has notably declined over four decades, largely due to human activities. Human-caused fatalities account for 65% of owl deaths, stemming from shootings, trapping, car collisions, power line electrocution, and rat poison poisoning. Historical misconceptions as pests led to centuries of hunting and killing, with illegal poaching still persisting today.

3. American Barn Owl

  • Scientific name: Tyto furcata
  • Life span: 10 years
  • Size: 34 to 38 cm (13 to 15 in)
  • Weight: 400 to 600 g (0.88 to 1.3 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 29 to 36 cm (11 to 14 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

 The remarkable American Barn Owl, with its ethereal appearance, is a nocturnal creature, concealing itself during the day and emerging at night to hunt. It belongs to a subspecies group, sporting a pale brown upper body and wings, and a creamy white face, chest, and belly, inspiring numerous mystical tales and legends.

A curious American Barn Owl looking at something.

The American Barn Owl, a stunning and mysterious nocturnal bird, hides during the day and hunts at night. Between March and June, they form monogamous pairs for life during nesting season. The male searches for an ideal nesting spot and establishes territory with energetic flights. Courtship includes chasing and sweeping before breeding.

In Massachusetts, American Barn Owls primarily feed on small mammals like voles, shrews, and mice. Their asymmetrically placed ears aid in locating prey through sound, enabling them to hunt in complete darkness. They require more food than other owls of their size due to a higher metabolic rate. While they may consume small birds and insects, small rodents dominate their diet in the agricultural landscape of Massachusetts.

Although not globally threatened, American Barn Owl populations in North America have decreased due to increased pesticide and rodenticide use, leading to fatalities from contaminated food sources. Despite setbacks, the species shows resilience and can recover from these losses in the short term.

4. Barred Owl

  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Life span: 8 years
  • Size: 40 to 63 cm (15 to 25 in)
  • Weight: 610 to 1,150 g (1.34 to 2.54 lb)
  • Wingspan: 96 to 125 cm (38 to 49 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

An extensive analysis of 158 marked Barred Owls indicates their preference for small, non-migratory territories, covering distances within 6 miles of their original location. Despite this, Barred Owls are widespread across the eastern United States and southern Canada. Their distinctive appearance features remarkable brownish-grey feathers adorned with dark stripes on their underparts.

A puffy Barred Owl with blank eyes taking a break on a mossy branch

Barred Owls, like American Barn Owls, form lifelong monogamous pairs during mating, with courtship occurring in February as the male spreads its wings and awaits the female’s acceptance. They build nests within hollow tree trunks in dense forests.

Their diet primarily comprises small mammals like mice and voles, along with smaller birds, reptiles, and insects. Occasionally, they consume larger prey such as rabbits and squirrels. These opportunistic predators use acute hearing to locate prey around forest rivers and wetlands, and they may scavenge for carrion.

With a global population of around 3 million, Barred Owls are considered widespread in North America and are classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List. Nevertheless, they, like other owls on this list, face threats like prey contamination and habitat destruction or disturbance in deep, dark forests.

5. Short-eared Owl

  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Life span: 12 years
  • Size: 34 to 43 cm (13 to 17 in)
  • Weight: 206 to 475 g (7.3 to 16.8 oz)
  • Wingspan:  85 to 110 cm (33 to 43 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Short-Eared Owl is a prevalent and widespread bird found in various environments worldwide. It can be recognized by its black small beak, spotted brown body, and striking wings and tail with distinctive brown bars. Unlike most owls, this species has a unique behavior of hunting during the daytime rather than at night. On a recent camping trip to Sweden, I had the pleasure of seeing one of these birds hunt very close-by.

A Short-Eared Owl sitting on the grass

The Short-Eared Owl is a widely distributed species, thriving in diverse ecosystems worldwide. Distinguished by its small black beak, brown-spotted body, and striking wings and tail with bold brown bars, it stands apart from other owls by hunting primarily during daylight hours.

During the breeding season, starting in March, Short-Eared Owls form temporary mating pairs and live together in flocks. Unlike many owls, they build their nests on the ground in low-vegetated areas like prairies, meadows, and tundras.

Their diet mainly consists of small mammals like voles, shrews, and rodents, along with reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds like sparrows and larks. These opportunistic hunters fly low to the ground in grasslands, meadows, and open habitats to capture prey during daylight.

The Short-Eared Owl population has faced a decline due to habitat destruction and vehicle collisions. However, the species is currently expanding its global range and is listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List.

6. Long-eared Owl

  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Life span: 10 to 27 years
  • Size: 31 to 40 cm (12 to 16 in)
  • Weight: 160 to 435 g (5.6 to 15.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 86 to 102 cm (2ft 10in to 3ft 4in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Long-eared Owl possesses a remarkable skill in blending with pine tree foliage, courtesy of its intricate camouflaging of brown and black feathers. As a widely distributed species, it boasts abundance, with haunting calls carrying up to a mile in dense forests, rendering it a distinctive and easily recognizable sound for visitors in its habitats.

This Long-Eared Owl seems like it was surprised by the cameraman.

The Long-Eared Owl, a skilled predator, expertly camouflages with brown and black feathers, resembling pine trees to blend into dense foliage. Abundant globally, its haunting calls carry up to a mile in dense forests, rendering it easily recognizable in its habitats.

During the breeding season, starting in March, males establish territories with distinctive singing and wing-flapping patterns. Rather than building nests, they occupy hawk nests or tree trunks with cavities.

Like most owls, the Long-Eared Owl primarily feasts on small mammals like mice, voles, shrews, and rodents, along with insects and small birds. They exhibit patience in hunting, waiting for prey while perching or flying low to search the ground.

Despite facing challenges from habitat destruction and vehicle collisions, the Long-Eared Owl is expanding its global range. Currently, the IUCN’s Red List classifies it as “Least Concern.”

7. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Life span: 7 to 17 years
  • Size: 17 to 22 cm (6.7 to 8.7 in)
  • Weight: 54 to 151 g (1.9 to 5.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 42 to 56.3 cm (16.5 to 22.2 in)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a small and elusive species, and is commonly found across North America, including Massachusetts. Its unique appearance includes a circular cream-colored face with brown streaks, a sharp dark beak, and striking yellow eyes.

The owl’s underbelly is made up of delicate brown markings over a light white hue, while its back and wings exhibit a more deep brown color with bright white spots. The owl is said to have gotten its name from its distinct call, resembling the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.

A close-up photo of the shy Northern Saw-Whet Owl

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl forms monogamous pairs during the breeding season, starting in March. Males may, however, mate with multiple females when prey is abundant. They nest in pre-existing holes made by woodpeckers or man-made nest boxes.

In Massachusetts, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl primarily feeds on small mammals like voles, mice, and shrews, along with insects and birds. With their sharp talons and beaks, they skillfully capture prey, even in confined spaces, and can take down larger animals.

Despite being widespread, habitat loss and competition for nesting sites from other birds and squirrels threaten the Northern Saw-Whet Owl. Additionally, they serve as prey for larger birds due to their small size. Nevertheless, the species is classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List.

8. Snowy Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Life span: 9-10 years
  • Size: 20-28 inches (52-71 cm)
  • Weight: 3.5-6.5 lb (1600-2950 g)
  • Wingspan: 4.2-4.8 ft (130-150 cm)
  • Status: Vulnerable

The Snowy Owl, a majestic and iconic bird of the Arctic tundra, boasts a striking appearance with pure white feathers and piercing yellow eyes. Found in the northern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia, these owls possess unique feathers on their legs and feet, aiding in temperature regulation and protecting their extremities from the cold. Renowned for their exceptional hearing, they can detect prey even under thick layers of snow, making them truly magnificent creatures.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls build their nests on the ground, often on tiny mounds within the tundra, occasionally using natural depressions or the abandoned nests of birds like Arctic Terns or shorebirds. Monogamous in nature, they often return to the same nesting site year after year.

Feasting primarily on lemmings, Snowy Owls also consume rodents, birds, and fish. Their adaptability makes them opportunistic hunters, capable of utilizing whatever food source is available in their environment.

Sadly, Snowy Owls have been labeled as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN due to declining populations in certain areas. Habitat loss and climate change are the main culprits, significantly disrupting their natural habitats. In the past, they were hunted for their prized feathers, used in clothing and decorative items.

Where to look for Owls in Massachusetts

Massachusetts offers a variety of habitats that are home to different owl species, making it an exciting destination for owl enthusiasts and birdwatchers alike. Starting your trips around sunset or just before sunrise increases your chances of seeing the birds.

Here are four good areas to visit, and what birds to expect there.

Quabbin Reservoir: With its vast wilderness and protected areas, Quabbin Reservoir is home to several owl species, including the Eastern Screech-Owl and Barred Owl.

Wachusett Mountain State Reservation: This park offers a mix of woodlands and open spaces, providing habitat for owls like the Great Horned Owl and Northern Saw-Whet Owl.

Cape Cod: Cape Cod’s diverse landscapes, including dunes, forests, and marshes, attract various owl species like the Short-Eared Owl and Snowy Owl during the winter months.

Mount Tom State Reservation: This mountainous area offers a chance to spot owls like the Eastern Screech-Owl and Barred Owl while enjoying scenic views of the Connecticut River Valley.

Conclusion

Massachusetts’ diverse landscapes are graced by an array of owls, each inhabiting unique lifestyles and habitats. From the majestic Great Horned Owl to the enchanting Eastern Screech-Owl, these nocturnal birds offer a captivating glimpse into the avian wildlife world, leaving onlookers awestruck.

Beyond their mesmerizing allure, owls play a pivotal role in maintaining Massachusetts’ ecological balance by controlling populations of small mammals and insects. Acquiring knowledge and fostering interest in these remarkable creatures will undoubtedly bolster long-term conservation efforts, ensuring their harmonious existence within Massachusetts’ precious ecosystems.

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