From the Appalachian Mountains to the coastline, the vast state of Virginia offers a diversity of environments that supports an abundance of bird species. Hotspots include the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Shenandoah National Park, and Kiptopeke State Park. There’s also an assortment of nature trails, including the first state-wide wildlife and birding trail in the United States. In this article, we take a look at the owls of Virginia.
There are eight species of owls that occur in Virginia. Owls live in a variety of habitats. They are nocturnal raptors, specialized for hunting in the dark, and are equipped with excellent night-vision, hearing, and stealth.
Although they are strongly associated with nocturnal behavior, some species are active during the day, while others may hunt diurnally depending on the season. And many owls are crepuscular – meaning they are active at dawn and dusk. Owls are split into two families, the Strigidae, which are the true owls, and the Tytonidae – the barn owls.
Spotting owls can be tricky since most species are not active during the day. And owls, by nature, are shy and elusive creatures.
Here are some tips for successful owling:
- Learn – Find out about the species of owls in the area you are looking.
- Listen – Familiarize yourself with the calls of different owls you can come across and listen actively. You are more likely to hear them before seeing them.
- Look carefully – Owls have excellent camouflage, and their plumages are adapted to blend into the night.
- Signs – Also look out for their pellets which are oblong or spherical and brown or grey in color. A large number of pellets indicates a nearby nesting or roosting owl.
- Be respectful – Be still and silent, and refrain from using bright lights, so as not to disturb or frighten them away.
Types Of Owls In Virginia
1. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific name – Bubo virginianus
- Lifespan – 28 (maximum recorded)
- Size – 17 to 25 in
- Weight – 2.6 to 3.5 lb
- Wingspan – 3 to 5 ft
- Status – Least concern
Also known as the tiger owl, the great horned owl is a large raptor named for its sizable tufts. Its plumage is mottled greyish-brown above and pale below with brown barring. It has a reddish-brown or grey facial disc and a white throat patch. Great horned owls have long feathers covering the legs and feet. They are the most widespread of the true owls, occurring all across North America, extending to parts of Central and South America. They occur year-round in Virginia. Great horned owls do not typically migrate and usually remain in the same territory for life. So, if you find a nesting pair, they are likely to remain in the vicinity unless disturbed.
They have a wide range of nesting sites and often nest in the hollows of trees. In mountainous regions and canyons, they nest along cliff ledges, within boulders, or in caves. They may also nest in human-made structures, on the ground, or even in the burrows and dens of mammals.
These owls need a combination of wooded habitats for nesting and roosting and open areas for hunting. Look for them perched around woodland and forest edges, orchards, and farmlands, often near open fields. They can also be found in parks and quiet suburban areas.
Great horned owls have an array of vocalizations, many of which sound strange and sinister. They can be described as a startling combination of hoots, screeches, growls, mews, and squawks. The song is a low-pitched repetitive series of hoots.
Great Horned Owls have an incredibly diverse diet comprising over 200 species of mammals and around 300 bird species. They also take invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even carrion. Their most common prey are rodents, lagomorphs, and ground-feeding birds. Great horned owls hunt nocturnally but are occasionally active during the day. The great horned owl is a highly adaptable bird with a wide range. However, surveys reflect that the populations have declined. Historically, they were intensively hunted. Another threat is the indirect poisoning by harmful pesticides targeted toward their prey.
2. Barred Owl
- Scientific name – Strix varia
- Lifespan – 24 years (oldest recorded)
- Size – 16 – 25 in
- Weight – 17 – 35 oz
- Wingspan – 38 – 49 in
A large owl with a barred plumage as per its name. The barred owl is brown above with cream-white barring and pale below with a scalloped mantle and brown streaks on the lower breast and belly. It has a large, rounded head and a pale facial disk with faint, concentric markings. Its large, dark eyes are close-set, and it has a pale yellow bill. The barred owl feathered legs and yellow feet with black talons.
Barred owls are common in Virginia and can be found year-round. They mainly inhabit mature deciduous and mixed forests but can also be found in coniferous forests, forest edges, semi-open woodlands, and large parks with old trees. They nest in hollow trunks of large trees or snags. Look out for them in deep, wooded areas.
The barred owl is a vocal raptor with a wide repertoire of spectacular, far-reaching calls. The common call is the series of eight hoots that can be described mnemonically as hu hu hu hoo, hu hu hu huhoo. Other vocalizations include eerie cackling, grumbling, screeching, and cat-like screams. Barred owls prey on small mammals, birds, and amphibians, but they also take reptiles, fish, and invertebrates. They are opportunistic predators that hunt after sunset, typically from a perch.
Despite being one of the most common species of owls in North America, barred owls are sensitive to logging and the destruction of old forests, making them an excellent indicator species. Nonetheless, this is a resilient and adaptable species with an expanded range, and population numbers have increased over the past few decades.
3. Barn Owl
- Scientific name – Tyto alba
- Lifespan – 2 – 4 years (wild); 25 years (captivity: maximum recorded)
- Size – 13 to 15 in
- Weight – 8 to 25 oz
- Wingspan – 31 to 37 in
The barn owl is an unusual beauty. Owing to their peculiar appearance and eerie call, it is often given monikers such as the demon owl, the ghost owl, and even the death owl. Yet barn owls are incredibly useful animals that help keep rodents at bay. The barn owl is a medium-sized owl with a heart-shaped face and a characteristic pale, speckled plumage. The upperparts are rusty-brown with dark patches. Its face and underparts range from cream to white. It has slender, feathered legs and long, broad wings that enable sharp, agile movements.
Barn owls occur in the open countryside at lower altitudes. They inhabit grasslands, farmlands, open woodlands, and woodland edges. They are strictly nocturnal. In North America, they consume a large number of voles. They also eat other rodents, insects, lizards, amphibians, bats, and birds. Barn owls can be found year-round in open areas all across Virginia. It is an unmissable bird. Look out for a flash of white in the open country at night.
Barn owls have an undulating flight pattern. They hunt by gliding low above the ground, scanning for prey. They may also be spotted taking off from a perch or flying to and from the nest. They are sometimes seen during the day flying between roosting sites. Barn owls do not hoot. The call is a piercing, shrill screech.
Barn owls often nest in barns and old buildings – behavior for which they are named. They also nest in tree holes or in cavities and crevices along cliffs or ridges. They sometimes use the nests of other birds and readily take to nest boxes. The female shreds up dried, regurgitated pellets as nesting material for the chicks. The barn owl is the most widely occurring owl and one of the most widespread birds. But many localized populations are declining due to habitat loss, collision with vehicles, and indirect poisoning from pesticides.
4. Eastern Screech Owl
- Scientific name – Megascops asio
- Lifespan – 14 years (oldest recorded)
- Size – 6.5 – 10 in
- Weight – 4 – 8 oz
- Wingspan – 18 – 24 in
The eastern screech owl is a stocky raptor with broad wings and a short tail. It has a patterned plumage with streaked underparts. There are two color morphs of this species varying from gray to rusty-brown, with the gray variant similar to the closely related western screech owl.
It has a large head with prominent ear-tufts, yellow eyes, and a yellowish bill. The legs are feathered, and it has large, powerful feet. Eastern screech owls inhabit wooded environments such as mixed woodlands, deciduous forests, riparian woods, orchards, parks, and gardens.
These owls adapt well to the presence of humans and are known to live in urban and suburban areas near human habitations, often nesting in neighborhood trees. They occur year-round in Virginia and are most active during summer. But they are not easy to spot. Listen for their whining call at night. Look for them roosting in shrubs or in the dense foliage of trees close to the trunk.
Eastern screech owls are opportunistic predators. They hunt nocturnally, typically from a perch. During the breeding season, insects, spiders, and other invertebrates such as crayfish, worms, and snails make up the majority of their diet. In winter, they prey on small birds and mammals such as mice and voles. The eastern screech owl is a resilient species capable of adapting its diet and habitat, making it possible to thrive in developed areas.
5. Short-Eared Owl
- Scientific name – Asio flammeus
- Lifespan – 4 years
- Size – 13 to 17 in
- Weight – 7.3 to 16.8 oz
- Wingspan – 33 to 40 in
The short-eared owl is a medium-sized owl of the grasslands. It has a rounded head with small ear tufts for which it is named. Its plumage is mottled brown, buff, and white above and buff below with dark streaks on the breast. The face is white in the center, with a brown facial disc edged with a pale rim. Its piercing yellow eyes are encircled by dark eye patches. They occur all across North America, with the majority of the population breeding in the north and migrating south for the winter. Virginia falls within their winter range.
Short-eared owls inhabit large, sparsely vegetated open areas. Look out for them in open fields and grasslands around dawn or dusk. They may be on the ground or flying low. They have a floppy, bat-like flight. The common call is a raspy bark, but they are mostly silent during winter. Short-eared owls mostly eat rodents, especially voles, rats, and mice. They also take birds and their nestlings. Populations of short-eared owls appear to be in decline due to habitat loss.
6. Long-Eared Owl
- Scientific name – Asio otus
- Lifespan – 12 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 14 to 16 in
- Weight – 7.8 to 5.3 oz
- Wingspan – 35 to 39 in
The long-eared owl is named for its prominent ear tufts. It has a dark, patterned plumage which is a mix of brown, grey, and buff. The underparts are buff with dark brown streaks. Its facial disc is buff with white in the middle. It has orange-yellow eyes and a greyish-black bill.
Long-eared owls have a wide distribution across the continent. They are uncommon in Virginia but can be spotted during winter in the northern parts. They inhabit forests and woodlands near densely vegetated open areas such as grasslands and shrublands. They can also be found in farmlands, orchards, parks, cemeteries, and gardens.
This shy, elusive owl is not easy to spot. They have a wide range of sounds that vary regionally. The male has a deep whooping song. Females have a high-pitched, nasal whistle. They also make cat-like yelping noises. They are silent during winter but often roost communally, making them easier to spot despite their excellent camouflage. Populations of the long-eared owl may be declining due to habitat loss.
7. Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Scientific name – Aegolius acadicus
- Lifespan – 7 years (wild); 16 years (captivity)
- Size – 7 to 9 in
- Weight – 2.2 to 5.4 oz
- Wingspan – 17 to 22 in
The northern saw-whet owl is one of the smallest and most adorable owls on the continent. It has a large, round head and a compact body. Its plumage is a rich brown with small white spots on the upperparts and blotchy white streaks below. The facial disc is paler brown, and it has a white Y-shape from the brows to the bill, between its huge yellow eyes.
Northern saw-whet owls mainly inhabit coniferous forests. During winter, they also take to deciduous or mixed woodlands. They nest in tree holes excavated by woodpeckers or in the old nests of other birds. They occur in northern and western Virginia during winter. These owls are not easy to spot. Listen for the call, which can be heard from a distance. It is a whistly, repetitive toot that can be described as a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone, hence the name.
They are nocturnal owls with exceptional hearing and can detect prey purely by sound. Rodents make up the vast majority of their diet. To a lesser extent, they also take small birds, bats, amphibians, and insects. Although the northern saw-whet owl is a common and widespread species, the population in the southern Appalachian is at risk. The main threat to this species is habitat loss due to deforestation, logging, and the destruction of mature forests.
8. Snowy Owl (Rare)
- Scientific name – Bubo scandiacus
- Lifespan – 10 (average) 23 years (oldest recorded)
- Size – 20 – 28 in
- Weight – 56 -104 oz
- Wingspan – 50 – 57 in
- Status – Vulnerable
With its striking white plumage and bright yellow eyes, the snowy owl is one of the most unmistakable owls in the world. Although mostly white, the plumage is stippled with dark spots on the upperparts. Females are more spotted and have faint brown barring. Snowy owls have relatively small heads, short ear-tufts, and long feathering. They are perfectly camouflaged against the snowy arctic environment and often appear as a lump of snow on the ground.
Snowy owls are raptors of the Arctic tundra, where they inhabit open treeless environments. They nest in shallow scrapes on dry ground, often on elevated sites such as ridges, hummocks, hills, and outcrops. Snowy owls are nomadic birds with unpredictable migration patterns. During some winters, they erupt south, but sightings in Virginia are rare. Still, if you are lucky enough you may spot them in meadows, prairies, grasslands, lakeshores, or even along the coast. They can also be found in crop fields, golf courses, and airport fields.
Unlike other owls, snowy owls have a far-carrying barking call instead of the typical hooting. The common call is a series of hoarse kru kru kru notes. Other vocalizations include clucking, squealing, grunting, hissing, and cackling.
Another unique characteristic of the snowy owl is their hunting activity, which unlike other owls can be during the day or night. They also lack the acute hearing typical of owls, so they rely mostly on their keen eyesight. They hunt from a perch or rise and swoop down on their prey on the ground. The main targets are small mammals, specifically lemmings. They also take other rodents, birds, and on occasion, the odd fish, amphibian or invertebrate.
Due to their erratic nature and the remoteness of their breeding habitat, it is difficult to keep track of the population dynamics of this species. They have few predators and a wide, relatively undisturbed breeding range. But it is estimated that their numbers of snowy owls have declined drastically. Possible threats include climate change which impacts their habitat and prey availability. During migrations and in winter, they are also prone to collision with cars, powerlines, and fences. They are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.
Owls are invaluable to humans as they consume more rodent pests than any other animal giving them high economic and ecological value. They are especially useful in agricultural areas as they are arguably more efficient in controlling pests than pesticides. Ironically, the use of pesticides is one of the main threats that owls face as they are indirectly poisoned by the toxic ingredients accumulated in their prey.
Most North American owls have stable populations, but some are in decline. In addition to pesticide use, habitat loss is another major threat. Owl boxes are a great way to invite owls into your backyard to help control rodents and provide much-needed nesting sites for these invaluable birds.