Situated in the northeastern United States, New Jersey is one of the top birdwatching states in the country. The state contains a massively diverse array of habitats and is located along the Atlantic Flyway migration route.
That means many bird species live in and visit the state, leading to a recorded total of more than 450 species.
Owls are some of the most well-known and mesmerising birds amongst people. These birds are almost exclusively nocturnal – active between dusk and dawn when they feed on small mammals, reptiles, insects and amphibians. Owls feed by swallowing their prey whole after decapitating the animal.
Eight species of owls are native to New Jersey or regularly visit seasonally, and one is seen during southward irruptions.
The best idea to find owls in New Jersey is to find a wooded area and be there at dawn or dusk. Owls often hunt over open spaces, so search for them by looking on exposed perches next to forest edges near grasslands.
Many owl species occur all year round in New Jersey. Good places to look for them are protected parks. In particular, Liberty State Park, Sterling Forest, the Pequannock watershed, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the Passaic River basin, the Maurice River tributaries, Great Cedar Swamp and Meadowland Park are some of the best owling locations in the state.
In the following text, we look at the nine owl species found in New Jersey and where they may be found.
1. Barred Owl
- Scientific name – Strix varia
- Lifespan – 8 years (average), 26 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 16.9 to 19.7 in (43 to 50 cm)
- Weight – 16.6 to 37 oz (470 to 1050 g)
- Wingspan – 39 to 43.3 in (99 to 110 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Barred Owl is a large owl that has no ear tufts. This owl is primarily brown overall with a brown mottled back. The underparts are variably patterned and buff coloured, with the chest having horizontal bars and the belly having vertical streaks. This species makes a unique call that many people describe as: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”.
Barred Owls nest on abandoned stick nests, in cavities, or in nest boxes. Very little to no alterations are made to the nest usually, but they may line the nest in feathers or lichen. The females lay between one and five eggs per clutch, and the eggs are incubated for 28 to 33 days.
The Barred Owl diet consists of insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and small mammals. Namely rabbits, squirrels, voles, chipmunks and mice.
The Barred Owl is a common species throughout its range. The global population has shown a slight increase over the past several decades. The population size is estimated to exceed 3.5 million.
The increase in population size can be linked to a northward and westward range expansion, owing to a lack of fires in the boreal forests that previously prevented the owls from inhabiting the area.
On the Great Plains, trees have been planted, allowing this species to extend its range even further. The Barred Owl’s main threat is logging.
Barred owls usually occur in old forests alongside streams and swamps. It is mainly found in wetland forests in southern New Jersey and in riparian woodlands in northern New Jersey. They are residents in the state, and some of the best places to search for them are High Point State Park, Wanaque Wildlife Management Area, Belleplain State Forest, and Bear Swamp Natural Area.
2. Short-eared Owl
- Scientific name – Asio flammeus
- Lifespan – 4 years (average), 12 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 13.4 to 16.9 in (34 to 43 cm)
- Weight – 7.3 to 16.8 oz (206 to 475 g)
- Wingspan – 33.5 to 40.5 in (85 to 103 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Short-eared Owl, as the name suggests, has short ear tufts. It is a light brown coloured owl overall with a whitish face, dark eye patches, and a heavily streaked body. The Short-eared Owl is not a vocal species and only makes hoots during the courtship displays.
The medium-sized Short-eared Owls are ground-nesters. They are one of the handful of owls that create their own nest. They nest on dry grassland areas amongst low shrubs and grasses – usually on a ridge, knoll or hummock.
The nest is bowl-shaped and lined with downy feathers and grasses. The female owl lays up to 11 eggs per clutch and incubates them for 21 to 37 days.
Short-eared Owls consume many prey items, which mainly comprise birds and small mammals. The birds recorded in its diet include gulls, terns, songbirds and storm petrels. Mammalian prey items such as rabbits, shrews, weasels, bats, pocket gophers and lemmings are also eaten, but their favourite prey items are mice and voles.
The population of Short-eared Owls appears to be stable, but there have been notable local long-term declines in certain areas. The owl is common, often seen during the day, and the population consists of approximately 2.3 million breeding individuals.
These owls are very sensitive to habitat loss, particularly the loss of grasslands, due to agricultural practices, human disturbance and development.
Short-eared Owls occur in a variety of habitats during the breeding season and winter. Those habitats include meadows, prairie grasslands, marshes, coastal grasslands, tundra, agricultural land and dunes.
This species visits the state in winter after breeding in Canada and the northern United States. They can be found in many areas throughout the state with suitable habitats for hunting.
3. Snowy Owl
- Scientific name – Bubo scandiacus
- Lifespan – 10 years (average), 24 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 20.5 to 27.9 in (52 to 71 cm)
- Weight – 56.4 to 104.1 oz (1600 to 2950 g)
- Wingspan – 49.6 to 57.1 in (126 to 145 cm)
- Status – Vulnerable
The Snowy Owl is one of the most recognisable owls in the world, with its unmistakable white plumage that is sometimes spotted brown or black. The Snowy Owl call is a series of deep, hoarse hoots.
Snowy Owls nest on tundra, usually on top of small dry crests. The nest is built on the ground by making a shallow hollowing. The female lays between three and eleven eggs in a clutch and incubates them for 32 days.
Snowy Owls feed on many birds, including seabirds, grebes, geese and ducks. This large owl preys on many small mammals as well, including squirrels, rabbits, weasels, rodents, lemmings, and hares.
The Snowy Owl is a tricky species to study to determine the population size because of its remote nesting sites, large territory ranges and vast migration routes. It is estimated that the population consists of around 29,000 birds.
The population is decreasing due to many threats and has reduced by 64% over the past four decades. One of the significant factors that may threaten them is climate change because they breed in the High Arctic.
Illegal hunting and shooting may still be an issue for this owl, and poisoning of prey items could lead to a decrease in the number of individuals.
Snowy Owls are found in open areas, such as tundra, fields, beaches, or on the tops of dunes. This is another species that breeds north of the state, migrating south from the Arctic tundra in winter.
They may be seen on top of various objects in winter, including fence posts, buildings and telephone poles. Locations for these rare visitors are the Atlantic coastline, including Island Beach State Park, Sandy Hook Beach and Long Beach Island.
4. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Scientific name – Aegolius acadicus
- Lifespan – 4 years (average), 10 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 7.1 to 8.3 in (18 to 21 cm)
- Weight – 2.3 to 5.3 oz (65 to 151 g)
- Wingspan – 16.5 to 18.9 in (42 to 48 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a tiny owl with a brown back, a whitish-coloured face, a brown head with white spots and whitish underparts mottled brown. They are named after their call, which consists of many “too-too-too” notes.
Northern Saw-whet Owls nest in tree cavities that were made previously by woodpeckers and occasionally in nest boxes. The nest is not lined with any material. Instead, debris, including grass and wood chips, acts as the lining. The female owl lays between four and seven eggs per clutch and incubates them for 26 to 29 days.
The diet of this owl comprises mammals, birds and insects. Bird prey consists of robins, waxwings, thrushes, kinglets, chickadees and sparrows, while mammalian prey items include shrews, mice, voles, shrew-moles, bats, and young pocket gophers, squirrels and chipmunks.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a widespread, common, secretive species. It is presumed that the population size has decreased over the past few decades because of habitat loss.
They are particularly threatened by logging because they breed in mature forests that are also targeted for timber or development. There are ways to mitigate the loss of habitat.
Those methods include the placement of nest boxes and leaving dead trees standing. Changes in distribution ranges due to climate change may become a factor for concern in the future.
Northern Saw-whet Owls are found in shrub-steppe habitats, deciduous woodlands, riverside forests, and savannahs. In winter, they occur in dense forests. They occur throughout the year in the state, where they are relatively common and may be found in areas with the correct habitat requirements.
5. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name – Bubo virginianus
- Lifespan – 13 years (average), 28 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 18.1 to 24.8 in (46 to 63 cm)
- Weight – 32.1 to 88.2 oz (910 to 2500 g)
- Wingspan – 39.8 to 57.1 in (101 to 145 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Great Horned Owl is a large grey-brown, mottled owl with a red-brown face, a white throat and distinct ear tufts. This species calls by producing a series of loud hoots.
This owl mainly uses stick nests in trees made by other mammals and birds. They may also nest in holes on cliff ledges, in trees and in deserted buildings. They make a lining for the nest out of leaves, bark, and feathers. During egg laying, one to four eggs are laid and incubated for between 30 and 37 days.
Great Horned Owls are not picky eaters at all and are intimidating hunters. They prey on many animals in a range of sizes, from birds with a heavier mass than themselves to small mice. Specifically, they feed on small mammals, including mice, gophers, rabbits and voles.
Small birds in their diet include doves, coots, ducks and even large raptors; namely the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) and other owls.
Great Horned Owls are very adaptable, allowing them to thrive in changing habitats, granted that there is good nest site availability. Therefore, they are a common, widespread owl species with a large distribution in the Americas.
The population is considered stable, with a total number of individuals estimated at over 5.7 million. The owls are threatened by toxic substances such as pesticides that accumulate in their prey items and illegal hunting.
Great Horned Owls are found in many habitats, such as grasslands, forests, wetlands, and urban areas. They are one of the state’s resident species and a common sight in many areas.
6. Eastern Screech-owl
- Scientific name – Megascops asio
- Lifespan – 4 years (average), 14 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 6.3 to 9.8 in (16 to 25 cm)
- Weight – 4.3 to 8.6 oz (121 to 244 g)
- Wingspan – 18.9 to 24 in (48 to 61 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Eastern Screech Owl is a short, plump owl with dark streaking and fine barring on the underparts. This owl may be seen in two colour morphs, namely grey and rufous.
The two morphs differ in colour, and the rufous morph has a white patch of feathers on the underside. This owl species is named after its call, which is a whinny trill.
This species nests in cavities in trees previously excavated by squirrels and woodpeckers. They do also make use of nest boxes in urban areas. Their nests are not lined with any substances. This species lays between two and six eggs per clutch, and the eggs are incubated for 27 to 34 days.
The Eastern Screech Owl feeds on an extensive range of birds, mammals, earthworms and even crayfish. The bird component of their diet includes woodpeckers, finches, doves, swallows and other similar-sized owls. In terms of mammals, they feed on squirrels, mice, rabbits, moles and rats.
This species is common, but overall there has been a 37% decrease in population size over the past five decades. The population size is estimated at 560,000 individuals.
This species has adapted well to urbanisation and is a generalist, meaning it is not under significant threat from habitat destruction but is still impacted.
The Eastern Screech Owl is the most common owl in New Jersey and may be located in any area with sufficient cover and nesting sites throughout the year. Their preferred habitats are woodland and forest with open understories. They are another species that has adapted well to living in suburbia.
7. Barn Owl
- Scientific name – Tyto alba
- Lifespan – 4 years (average), 15 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 12.6 to 15.8 in (32 to 40 cm)
- Weight – 14.1 to 24.7 oz (400 to 700 g)
- Wingspan – 39.4 to 49.2 in (100 to 125 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Barn Owl has a beautifully coloured back with a mixture of cinnamon and grey tones, while the face and undersides are white. This species is recognised by its distinct heart-shaped face. The typical vocalisation of this species is a loud, harsh scream.
This medium-sized owl nests in buildings that are usually abandoned, holes in trees, nest boxes, cliff crevices, holes in caves and river banks. The cup-shaped nest is built using regurgitated pellets.
The female may lay up to eighteen eggs in a clutch, but usually, fewer are laid, with a minimum of two eggs per clutch. The eggs are incubated for 29 to 34 days.
The Barn Owl feeds mainly on small mammals such as lemmings, mice, rabbits, voles, and bats. This species may also eat birds like starlings and meadowlarks.
It has been estimated that Barn Owls have increased slightly in number over the past several decades. The population is estimated to comprise approximately 3.6 million breeding individuals.
The Barn Owl faces threats to nesting sites driven by the transformation and development of agricultural land, hollow trees and derelict buildings. Pesticides such as DDT had detrimental impacts on their populations because the pesticides exterminated the rodents on which they feed.
Barn Owls may be seen in deserts, grassland, agricultural land, suburban areas, urban areas, and marshes. They are a resident species in New Jersey but remain uncommon year-round. Good places to look for them are Delaware Bay and Stone Harbour.
8. Long-eared Owl
- Scientific name – Asio otus
- Lifespan – 11 years (average), 27 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 13.8 to 15.8 in (35 to 40 cm)
- Weight – 7.8 to 15.3 oz (220 to 435 g)
- Wingspan – 35.4 to 39.4 in (90 to 100 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Long-eared Owl is a medium-sized species that has very long ear tufts. This owl has a dark greyish-brown body with buff, black and brown feather patterns. The face is orangeish and has whitish-streaked underparts. Long-eared Owls are usually silent, but they make “whoo” calls during the breeding season.
Long-eared Owls do not make their own nests. Instead, they take over stick nests built and abandoned by magpies, crows, ravens and hawks. They may nest in cliff and tree cavities or on the ground rarely. The female lays two to ten eggs in a clutch, and the eggs are incubated for 25 to 30 days.
The species feeds on small birds and mammals. Particular prey items include kangaroo rats, shrews, young rats, pocket gophers and mice. In rare predation events, they may feed on reptiles, squirrels, chipmunks, bats, moles and weasels.
The Long-eared Owl is a reasonably common species whose numbers vary yearly. The population appears to be declining, and it is estimated that the total number is around 520,000 individuals. This species is threatened by habitat loss because they need both woodland and grassland in close proximity.
Long-eared Owls may be found in open woodland with open grasslands and shrublands alongside and in forests. They visit New Jersey in winter, where they become common and may be found in many areas in the state.
9. Northern Hawk Owl
- Scientific name – Surnia ulula
- Lifespan – 10 years (average), 16 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 14.2 to 17.7 in (36 to 45 cm)
- Weight – 8.5 to 16 oz (240 – 454 g)
- Wingspan – 30.8 to 34.6 in (78 to 88 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Northern Hawk Owl is a unique long-tailed owl with a whitish face and a dark border around the face. The underside is whitish with horizontal brown stripes. The back is white-spotted and brown. The typical call produced by this species is a long whistling “ululululul”.
Northern Hawk Owls nest in holes in trees previously opened naturally or by woodpeckers. They do not line the nest with any material. The female lays between three and thirteen eggs in a single clutch and incubates for 25 to 30 days.
Northern Hawk Owls feed on small mammals mainly, particularly voles. They are supplemented with birds, including grouse and ptarmigan, during winter.
This species is uncommon throughout its range but is not of conservation concern. The global population has been estimated to consist of approximately 200,000 individuals. However, an accurate number is difficult to establish because of their boreal habitat. They are threatened by logging practices that decrease nesting site availability.
Northern Hawk Owls occur in marshy areas with trees and open coniferous or mixed forests adjacent to open spaces. When south of their normal range during irruptions, they may be seen in well-wooded farmland, lakeshores or prairies with high perches.
This species is rarely seen in the state, and the only time they come this far south is during southward irruptions from its northern range.
Owls come in a range of colours, patterns and sizes, and their mysterious nocturnal lifestyles inspire the imaginations of many. They go about their business without people noticing them much, but just because they aren’t seen doesn’t mean they do not face issues.
The populations of most of the North American owl species are stable, but some species have faced decreases in population sizes. The reductions are often linked to the use of pesticides that accumulate in rodents, which gets into the owl’s system since they are often their primary prey items.
Owls are a very effective pest control mechanism, so using poisons to exterminate pests can cause more damage to the natural population control mechanisms.