Natural Observations-The owls of winter

photos by Robin Song

Robin Song, host and producer of this week’s Earth and Beyond program, tells about the life history, habits, and sounds of local owl species: the little boreal and  saw-whet, the medium-sized short-eared and hawk, and the large great-horned and gray. Text follows audio.


As the winter of strange weather scrolled by, I wondered where the owls were. This was the second winter in a row that I didn’t hear any owls calling out at the ranch. In prior winters I had frequently heard the calls of Great Horned, Great Grays, Saw Whets, Boreals, and Northern Hawk Owls. I had been privileged to see each of these owl species, as well. Even though I didn’t hear any owls all last winter, I did get to see my first Short-Eared Owl in one of the hay fields when I was out walking the dogs last fall. As it lifted out of the autumn-gold grass and headed north over the drive and into the forest, I hoped I might hear it during the up-coming winter. But no such luck. The nights were silent, once again.


Then, on February 22nd, when I was walking back from shutting off the generator, a sound from the forest northwest of the cabin stopped me in my tracks. Could it be? The dogs had stopped as well, and we all listened. Sure enough-the clear, low, rapid monotone toots-similar to the winnowing of a Common Snipe- sounded in the forest northwest of the cabin. I knew it to be the call of a Boreal Owl. Neither of my young dogs had ever heard this sound before, and they woofed quietly a few times until I assured them everything was alright and I really wanted to hear the owl calls. It was a bit magical to stand in the darkness and listen to the little owl calling, like the ringing of a soft bell coming from the forest. The past two winters I had been waiting to hear Great Horned Owls again, so hearing this little owl was a surprise.


And little they are-only ten inches long, with a wingspan of twenty-one inches. Only the Northern Saw Whet Owl is smaller, at eight inches long, and a wingspan of seventeen inches. Both these small owls are found in mixed coniferous-deciduous forests, and they roost in tree cavities or in dense vegetation. They both hunt mainly rodents from perches, sitting quietly, watching for movement on the forest floor, then launching on silent wings to drop onto their prey.


The Boreal is dark brown and white, with a broadly streaked chest and underside, and a short tail. It has black framing its white facial disks and small white spots on its brown forehead. Its yellow beak is also distinctive.


The Northern Saw Whet is similar, but lacks the black framing its white facial disks, and has a black beak. It has tiny white streaks instead of spots on its brown forehead.


The Short-Eared Owl is larger, at fifteen inches in length, and a wingspan of thirty-eight inches. It prefers any open expanse-such as fields, marshes and tundra. It courses over these, often in daylight, in search of rodents, sometimes being mistaken for Northern Harrier Hawks. They are silent, except in nesting season, when the male will emit a muffled poo poo poo, in a two-second long series. The alarm calls of both male and female owls are high, wheezy, monotone notes. They are buff-brownish colored, with thinly streaked chests and undersides. Their brown facial disks are ringed in white, and their beaks are black. Their flight is described as ‘moth-like’ flapping, with deep wing strokes. They have long, narrow wings, which gives them an easy, floating flight.


The Northern Hawk Owl is sixteen inches in length, with a wing span of twenty-eight inches. Like the Short-Eared Owl, it also hunts in the daytime. This owl likes to fly up and perch on the top of trees, watching for the movement of rodents popping out of the snow to cross a meadow, or other such opportunities. It will sometimes flick its long, narrow tail up and down, while perched. Its flight is low and fast with quick, stiff wingbeats. Its entire front is barred black and white, and its white facial disks are framed with wide black and white bands. Its beak is yellow, and its dark brown back is heavily spotted with white feathers. The brown forehead is liberally spotted with small white feathers. The Hawk Owls’ call is a high-pitched hawk-like cry. The courtship call of the male is heard mainly at night, and is a series of popping whistles up to six seconds long.


The largest owls in our area are the Great Horned and the Great Gray Owls. The Great Horned-named for its ear tufts-is eighteen to twenty-five inches in length, with the female being larger than the male. The Great Gray is larger, at twenty-four to thirty-three inches in length, but Great Horned Owls are heavier and stronger. The Great Grays don’t have the ear tufts, and have very large facial disks framed in black with two white patches at the base of the disks. These facial disks have concentric gray circles leading to pale gray patches curving part way around their yellow eyes. They are overall gray with long tails. Both Great Grays and Great Horned Owls are found in coniferous and deciduous forests, and at forest edges. Both nest on tops of broken-off trees or use old raven, hawk or squirrel nests.


The Great Horned Owl is the most widespread of all the owls, encompassing all of North America from Alaska on down into South America. They vary widely in color, from pale grayish-brown to very dark brownish-black overall. Their bodies are heavily barred and facial disks range in color from pale gray to deep golden-brown.


It is thought that the male’s smaller size may help with agility for hunting and provisioning, or for nest defense. The female’s greater size can also be pretty intimidating to a nest-site invader. Their diet is greatly varied, made up of rodents, small mammals, amphibians, insects and birds- including ducks, and geese. In northern winters they will cache uneaten prey, returning later to thaw out a frozen carcass by “incubating” it.


Most owl species begin courting in the North Country in late March or so. (Outside, Great Horned Owls are nesting as early as December in Texas and Florida .) Incubation lasts around a month. The hatchlings are brooded for a few weeks and remain in the nest for two and a half to three months-sometimes much less. When the young leave the nest, they will be fed on the forest floor by their parents, following them around their territory and begging noisily. Gradually the owlets will learn to hunt on their own and will disperse from their parent’s territories, usually by the age of ten months. This is why owls begin to nest so early- their young need a long time to learn to become independent.


By the third of March I had heard the Boreal Owl four nights, and I hoped this meant the owls were returning to the ranch. Why they had left remains a mystery. Perhaps the snowshoe hare, grouse, and ptarmigan populations had crashed and sent the owls elsewhere. Now, maybe the populations were climbing again and bringing the owls back. But that’s just my guess. There are a lot of factors in the balance between predators and prey. For me, I’ve missed the deep hooting of the Great Horned Owls on the still winter nights. I’ve missed looking up and spotting a Northern Hawk Owl perched atop a spruce at the edge of the hayfield along the drive, watching for an unwary vole. I’ve missed coming across an owl pellet at the base of a tree stump in the forest while out walking with my dogs, and taking it apart, marveling at the intricacy of a tiny vole skull hidden within. I’ve missed watching a Great Gray floating across a hay field, silent as a ghost, as it heads towards the forest. I’ve missed the almost comical ‘beeping’ call of the Saw Whet near the cabin, being answered by ‘beeping’ way out in the forest on a moonlit winter night.


Owls, with their specialized silent flight and great yellow eyes, are magnificent birds, and I hope all the species will return to grace the forests once again with their own special magic.




By Robin Song

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *