8 Owls in West Virginia (With Pictures)

8 Owls in West Virginia (With Pictures)

West Virginia, a state known for its rich biodiversity and stunning natural landscapes, offers a unique haven for one of nature’s most intriguing and mysterious creatures: the owl. These nocturnal birds of prey, with their enigmatic eyes and silent flight, captivate the hearts of wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers alike.

The state’s varied ecosystems, from the dense woodlands of the Appalachian Mountains to the serene wetlands and grassy fields, provide ideal habitats for different owl species. Each species, from the majestic Great Horned Owl to the elusive Northern Saw-whet Owl, adds to the state’s ecological diversity and beauty.

This article delves into the world of owls in West Virginia, exploring their habitats, behaviors, and the best spots for observing these fascinating birds. It is a journey into the night, uncovering the secrets of these winged wonders and offering insights into their crucial role in the state’s natural heritage. Whether perched silently on a tree branch or gliding ghost-like through the forest, owls in West Virginia are a testament to the state’s rich and vibrant wildlife.

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           
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Eastern Screech-Owl, a master of disguise, possesses an uncanny ability to blend into its surroundings. Its plumage, a complex pattern of grays, reds, and browns, mirrors the bark of trees in the deciduous forests of Eastern North America.

From the Canadian boreal edges down through the United States to Mexico, this small owl’s presence is more often betrayed by its eerie trills and whinnies than by sight.

Eastern Screech-Owl

The Eastern Screech-Owl, a small yet formidable bird, is a master of adaptation in West Virginia. They nest in a variety of habitats, from wooded suburban areas to dense forests. They often use tree cavities or nest boxes provided by humans for nesting. The male performs a captivating trilling serenade to attract a mate.

Post-mating, the female incubates the eggs in the secluded nest, while the male forages and guards the territory. Their nesting behavior illustrates their versatility and ability to thrive in close proximity to human environments.

The Eastern Screech-Owl’s diet in West Virginia is eclectic, feeding on insects, small mammals, birds, and even fish. Their hunting strategy is adaptable, taking advantage of whatever prey is available in their habitat.

Conservation efforts for the Eastern Screech-Owl focus on habitat preservation and reducing human-wildlife conflicts. While they are adaptable, they are still affected by habitat destruction and pollution. Efforts include promoting the use of nest boxes and preserving tree cavities, which are crucial for their nesting.

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
  • State status: Breeding and common

Known for its imposing presence, the Great Horned Owl is a symbol of strength and agility in the avian world. With its iconic tufted “horns” and penetrating yellow eyes, this bird exudes a sense of majestic solemnity. Its plumage, a mottled mix of browns, grays, and whites, provides excellent camouflage against the bark of trees in its woodland habitats.

This owl’s geographical range is extensive, spanning from the subarctic forests of North America down to the tropical rainforests of South America, making it one of the most widespread owl species.

Great Horned Owl

Unlike many birds, they do not construct their nests. Instead, they commandeer abandoned nests built by other large birds, such as hawks or eagles, showcasing their opportunistic nature. These nests, perched high in trees or on cliff ledges, provide a strategic vantage point for surveillance.

During breeding season, from January to February, these owls become fiercely territorial. The female incubates the eggs, revealing a tender side to her otherwise formidable persona, while the male diligently hunts and guards their territory.

The diet of the Great Horned Owl in West Virginia is as varied as it is ruthless. These owls are apex predators, feasting on a wide range of prey. Their diet includes rabbits, skunks, and even other raptors. They hunt primarily at night, utilizing their exceptional vision and hearing to locate prey. This owl’s powerful talons can exert a crushing force, swiftly ending the life of its prey.

Conservation efforts for the Great Horned Owl in West Virginia have been relatively minimal due to its stable population. However, they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Historically, these owls faced threats from habitat destruction and rodenticides, which indirectly poisoned them. Conservation awareness involves protecting their natural habitats and controlling the use of harmful chemicals.

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
  • State status: Breeding and common

The American Barn Owl, with its ghostly appearance, haunts the night in a silent glide. Its heart-shaped, pale face stands in stark contrast to the golden-brown upperparts and creamy-white underparts.

These owls are a sight to behold in moonlit nights across their range, which includes most of the Americas, Europe, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and Australia. They are often associated with rural farmlands and, as their name suggests, barns and other old buildings.

American Barn Owl

The American Barn Owl has a unique affinity for human-altered landscapes. They often nest in barns, abandoned buildings, or tree cavities, showcasing their adaptability. These owls are monogamous, often breeding with the same partner year after year.

The female lays a clutch of eggs, which she incubates while the male provides food. Their choice of nesting in close proximity to humans indicates a remarkable coexistence, but it also puts them at risk of disturbance and habitat loss.

The American Barn Owl’s diet in West Virginia consists predominantly of small rodents, making them invaluable in controlling pest populations. They hunt at night, silently gliding over fields and open spaces. Their heart-shaped face acts like a radar dish, channeling sound to their ears, aiding in the precise location of prey. This diet underlines their ecological role as natural pest controllers and their importance in maintaining a balanced ecosystem.

Conservation efforts for the American Barn Owl focus on habitat preservation and the mitigation of human-induced threats. Despite their adaptability, these owls face challenges due to pesticide use and habitat destruction. Conservation programs often involve educating farmers and landowners about the benefits of barn owls and promoting the use of owl-friendly practices.

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
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Barred Owl,  a picture of elegance with its piercing brown eyes and distinctive barred plumage of rich browns and creamy whites. Roosting in the dense canopy, it embodies the serene beauty of mature forests and wooded swamps across eastern North America.

From the deep woods of the Canadian Maritimes, stretching through the Eastern United States, down to parts of Mexico, this owl’s haunting hoot echoes through its territory.

Barred Owl

The Barred Owl is a familiar presence in West Virginia’s mature forests. They nest in large tree cavities, sometimes in abandoned nests of other large birds. This choice reflects their preference for well-forested areas with mature trees.

The female takes on the role of incubating the eggs, while the male provides food and protection. Their strong territorial instincts are evident during the breeding season, with pairs often staying together for many years. The nesting behavior of the Barred Owl underscores the importance of preserving old forests for their continued survival.

Barred Owls in West Virginia have a diverse diet, including small mammals, birds, and even amphibians and reptiles. They are opportunistic hunters, adapting their diet based on prey availability. Their hunting strategy involves perching silently and pouncing on prey detected by their acute hearing.

Conservation efforts for the Barred Owl are largely centered around habitat conservation. While currently not endangered, they are sensitive to habitat loss, particularly the loss of old-growth forests. Conservation measures include protecting large tracts of forest and monitoring populations to ensure their stability.

5. 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
  • State status: Migratory and rare

The Snowy Owl, boasting a breathtaking white plumage, flecked with black markings, creating a stunning contrast against the snowy landscapes. Its bright yellow eyes pierce the Arctic gloom.

This owl’s range is circumpolar, spanning the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia. During winter, it often migrates south to Canada and the northern United States, gracing open fields and coastlines with its majestic presence.

Snowy Owl

While they don’t breed in West Virginia, their nesting behavior in their Arctic homeland is noteworthy. They nest on the ground, making shallow scrapes on elevated ridges or mounds to lay eggs. This ground-nesting habit is unique among owls and reflects their adaptation to treeless tundra. The female incubates the eggs and tends to the young with fierce protection, while the male hunts and provides food, showcasing their strong parental bond.

During their occasional winter visits to West Virginia, Snowy Owls primarily feed on small mammals, like rodents and rabbits. In their Arctic breeding grounds, their diet is heavily focused on lemmings.

These owls are diurnal hunters, a rare trait among owls, adapted to the continuous daylight of the Arctic summer. Their presence in West Virginia during winter is often an exciting event for birdwatchers, highlighting the dynamic and migratory nature of bird species.

Conservation efforts for the Snowy Owl are complex due to their migratory nature and Arctic breeding grounds. Threats include climate change impacting their tundra habitat and food sources. Conservation initiatives involve protecting their breeding grounds and understanding their migratory patterns.

6. 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
  • State status: Migratory and common

The Short-eared Owl, easily recognized by its short ear tufts, which are often difficult to see. Displaying a fascinating blend of tawny, buff, and white across its plumage, with streaks and spots for camouflage, it appears almost ethereal in open landscapes.

This owl’s range is truly global, encompassing North and South America, Europe, Asia, and many Pacific islands, favoring open terrains like grasslands and marshes. It’s even a common resident in my home country of Denmark.

Short-eared Owl

These owls nest in open fields or marshes, creating shallow depressions on the ground. This choice of nesting site makes them vulnerable to predators and human disturbances. During the breeding season, the male performs elaborate aerial displays to attract a mate.

Once paired, the female takes on the responsibility of incubating the eggs, while the male provides food. Their nesting behavior reflects an adaptation to the open habitats they prefer but also highlights their vulnerability in an ever-changing environment.

The diet of the Short-eared Owl in West Virginia primarily consists of small mammals, particularly voles. These owls are crepuscular, hunting mostly during dawn and dusk. They fly low over open fields, using their keen hearing to detect prey hidden in the grass.

Their diet reflects their adaptation to open habitats and their role as natural pest controllers. However, this reliance on small mammals also makes their food supply vulnerable to environmental changes, such as habitat loss or fluctuations in prey populations.

Conservation efforts for the Short-eared Owl are significant due to its declining numbers, primarily caused by habitat loss and fragmentation. These owls require large open spaces, which are increasingly being converted for agricultural or developmental purposes. Conservation strategies include habitat restoration and management, such as maintaining or creating open grasslands.

7. 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
  • State status: Breeding and rare

Enigmatic and slender, the Long-eared Owl is adorned with striking ear tufts and a facial disk framed by black and brown streaks. Its mottled brown and buff plumage provides perfect concealment in dense thickets and woodlands. This owl’s range spans across the Northern Hemisphere, from North America to Europe and Asia, preferring secluded roosts in dense forests and rarely venturing into open spaces.

Long-eared Owl

The Long-eared Owl exhibits intriguing nesting behaviors in the dense forests of West Virginia. Preferring to inhabit coniferous or mixed forests, these owls typically take over abandoned nests of other birds, such as crows or hawks.

Their nests are often well-hidden, offering protection and seclusion. The female is chiefly responsible for incubation, showcasing her dedication in the silent, dim forest ambiance. The male plays a crucial role in providing food and defending the nest.

In West Virginia the Long-eared Owl’s diet primarily consists of small rodents, especially voles. They are silent hunters, utilizing their exceptional hearing and stealthy flight to catch prey unawares, often hunting along forest edges or open fields at dusk or dawn. This dietary pattern underlines their role as natural pest controllers and highlights the significance of maintaining healthy, diverse ecosystems for their feeding habits.

The Long-eared Owl faces challenges primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Conservation efforts are centered on preserving and restoring their natural habitats, especially mature forests and woodland edges. They are a species of special concern in some areas, and their secretive nature makes monitoring difficult. Conservationists emphasize the importance of land management practices that support a diverse, healthy environment for these elusive owls.

8. 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
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Northern Saw-whet Owl, captivating with its oversized head, big yellow eyes, and plumage that blends an array of browns, whites, and buffs. This owl, small yet fierce, inhabits the dense, coniferous forests of North America. From the boreal expanses of Canada down through the United States, it remains a hidden gem, often heard but rarely seen in the forest’s understory.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

The Northern Saw-whet Owl prefers dense forests for nesting in West Virginia. Remarkably, they often use old woodpecker holes or natural tree cavities for nesting, showing an efficient use of existing resources.

During the breeding season, the male entices the female with a repetitive tooting call and offers food as a courtship gift. Once the female accepts, she dedicates herself to incubating the eggs in the secluded nest, while the male tirelessly forages for food.

In West Virginia, the diet of the Northern Saw-whet Owl primarily consists of small mammals, particularly mice. Despite their small size, they are proficient hunters, catching prey almost equal to their own weight. They hunt under the cover of darkness, using their exceptional hearing and silent flight to ambush prey.

Conservation efforts for the Northern Saw-whet Owl are focused on preserving their natural habitats. They face threats from deforestation and habitat fragmentation. Conservation strategies include protecting old-growth forests and promoting sustainable forestry practices. Their elusive nature makes them a less-known species, but they play a crucial role in the ecosystem, and their conservation is vital for biodiversity.

Where to look for Owls in West Virginia

Finding owls in West Virginia can be a rewarding experience for nature enthusiasts and birdwatchers. These majestic birds can be observed in various habitats across the state, each species favoring specific environments.

Firstly, the key to spotting owls is knowing their preferred habitats and behaviors. Owls are primarily nocturnal, so early morning or dusk are the best times for observation. Quiet, patient waiting is essential, as owls can be easily disturbed. Listening for their distinctive calls can be a helpful way to locate them. Owls often inhabit dense forests, wetlands, open grasslands, and areas near water sources. They can also be found in suburban areas with mature trees, particularly Eastern Screech-Owls.

In West Virginia, some of the best areas to find owls include:

  • Monongahela National Forest: This expansive forest provides a diverse habitat for various owl species, including the Barred Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl. The dense forests and remote areas offer ideal conditions for owl spotting.
  • Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge: A haven for wildlife, this area’s diverse habitats make it a prime location for observing owls, especially during migration seasons.
  • Harpers Ferry National Historical Park: Along with its historical significance, this park’s wooded areas and riverside habitats are conducive to spotting Barred Owls and Eastern Screech-Owls.
  • Coopers Rock State Forest: Known for its scenic beauty, this forested area is a good spot for seeing Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech-Owls, especially near dusk.

When searching for owls, it’s important to use binoculars or a spotting scope to keep a respectful distance. Additionally, minimizing noise and movement can increase the chances of observing these elusive birds. Remember to respect the wildlife and their habitat during your exploration.

Conclusion

West Virginia offers a rich tapestry for owl enthusiasts, providing diverse habitats that support a fascinating variety of owl species. From the dense forests of Monongahela to the tranquil wetlands of Canaan Valley, each area presents unique opportunities to observe these elusive nocturnal birds.

Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or a curious nature lover, the state’s natural beauty and the mysterious allure of its owl population promise an unforgettable experience in the wild.

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