About Owls

Northern Saw Whet Owl

Owls are members of the Strigiformes, an order of birds of prey (like Hawks and Eagles). All owls are characterized by their large forward-facing eyes, hawk-like beak, flat face and circle of feathers around the face (called a facial disc). It is theorized that this disc helps to funnel sound waves towards the owls’ ears, so they can locate prey. Although the featured colors and patterns of different species can vary quite a bit, all owl feather patterns are adapted for exceptional camouflage when roosting and hunting. Many species have patterns that perfectly mimic the bark of preferred trees.
The sizes and shapes of owls vary quite a bit. Large owls such as the Great Horned or Snowy Owls can reach lengths of 2 feet and have wingspans reaching 4 feet across. Smaller owls, such as the Northern Saw-whet, are as small as 7 inches with 17 inch wingspans. The Elf Owl, found in the southwest US and Mexico, is a mere 5 inches with 15 inch wingspans.

Owls are primarily solitary nocturnal hunters. They roost in trees, usually with an open view of their hunting ground and wait for a small animal to pass. Like primates, owls have binocular vision, enabling them to pinpoint prey in a 3D field of vision, but unlike primates they cannot move their eyes. Instead they move their heads, and most can twist more than 270 degrees. Owls have excellent vision both in the dark and at a distance, but they are far-sighted and can’t focus properly on objects that are very close. To help compensate for this deficiency, owls have specially adapted hair-like feathers around their beaks and on their talons that increase tactile sensitivity; enabling them to better handle their prey.

With over 200 species world-wide, owls can be found in most corners of the globe (not in Antarctica or Greenland). Here in New York State we are blessed with eight nesting species of owl, including the endangered Short-eared (Asio flammeus). One of the best places to observe owls in New York State is Owl Woods in the Braddock Bay Wildlife Management Area.

Some interesting facts about owls:

  • Not all owls “hoot”. Some beep, some screech, some hiss. A lot of species will make a variety of sounds.
  • Owls make noise, which risks giving up their location to prey, in order to announce their current position and territorial range to other owls.
  • Many owls rely on sound as well as vision to locate prey. Bird ears have not evolved outer anatomy to help separate and channel external sound like a mammal’s ears have. Instead the owls’ heads have evolved to help direct and differentiate stereo sound to their ear cavities. Many species have asymmetrical skulls or ear cavities located in different positions on each side of the head, which helps direct sound waves into the left and right ears differently—allowing them to hear in stereo.
  • Although owls are primarily solitary, a group of them is called a “parliament.
  • Owls have a loose, puffy coat of soft feathers. When alarmed, they will suck in their features in order to make their profile slim. If they have ear-tufts they will stick up straight. The goal is to make themselves blend into the tree like a branch. If they sense danger, they will puff out their feathers in order to appear larger.
  • Owls usually swallow their prey whole. If they aren’t hungry they will store it under their feet, on a nearby branch, or within a hollowed out portion of a tree.
  • Owls regurgitate the indigestible portions of their meals in the form of pellets. Usually gray, these pellets often contain fur, feathers, bones and scales.
  • Owl pellets are studied by ornithologists, enthusiasts, and students. Examination of the gruesome contents can reveal not only the diet, but possibly the species of owl.
  • Owls are considered to be the quietest flying birds. Serrations on most species of owls’ leading wing muffle their wing beats, allowing them to swoop down on prey unnoticed.
  • Farmers often utilize owls for pest control. Tall owl boxes are erected in order to attract species such as the Barn Owl. This can help to reduce rodent populations by up to 800 per owl, per year.
  • Some birds won’t tolerate an owl nesting or hunting in their territory. Smaller birds of the same species may group together and attack a roosting owl until it moves on.
  • Owls take baths in puddles, shallow ponds or snow, and shower in the rain.
  • Many species of owls migrate south for the winter to escape the harsh weather and lack of available prey.
  • As with other birds of prey, owls have locking tendons in their talons that enable them to latch on to prey or branches without having to constantly contract muscles.
  • Owls are opportunistic nesters. The generally do not construct their own nests, but rather take over the nests of other birds.
  • According to one owl, it takes 3 licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

Owl Books and Field Guides

Great Bird-watching Scopes and Binoculars

Identification Guide for Owls of New York

Common Barn OwlCommon Barn OwlCommon Barn OwlFind more images

Common Barn Owl
(Tyto alba)

AKA: White owl, Silver owl, Ghost owl, Hissing owl, Monkey-faced owl, Church owl, Death owl, Golden owl.

Identifying characteristics: A moderately-sized owl with a haunting look. Heart-shaped facial disc (mask) outlined by golden brown. Black eyes and a pale beak. White underparts with golden-brown upperparts. Small black and gray spots present throughout most of the body and wings. The legs and talons are large and lightly feathered.

Size: From 12.5 to 16 inches in length with wingspans reaching 43 inches. Females are generally larger than males (by about 10 to 20%).

Habitat: A variety of habitats from wild to urban. They tend to stick to open grasslands and agricultural fields.

Nesting: They require cavities in trees, cliffs, nest boxes, caves or inside man-made structures for nesting. Nests are usually lined with shredded pellets.

Food: Carnivore. Any small animals, especially rodents. Hunts nocturnally from low flight or from a low perch (usually fence posts). It often utilizes its acute hearing to locate prey in darkness.

Flight: Slow wing beats; often tilting; panning head; usually low to the ground. Video; Video

Predators: Weasels will often invade nests; Raccoons; Great Horned Owls; domestic cats and dogs.

Reproduction: Barn Owls are monogamous and will remain in pairs for the remainder of their lives. They usually breed once a year, with the timing and frequency depending on food availability, but usually occurring in the warmer months. Males will circle females fending off other males and screeching. Males will also hover in front of a perched female for short periods of time in a display referred to as a moth flight. Male-females chases are also common. The female lays 5-7 white, spotless eggs (a few at a time for several days). The female incubates the eggs constantly, and the male hunts. Eggs hatch in 30 days. It takes about 8 weeks for juveniles to learn to fly and leave the nest.

Other info.: Barn Owls rarely live more than a few years. They are unable to store much energy as fat, so if unable to catch enough food, they will die. Barn Owls are often utilized with great effectiveness by farmers as natural mouse traps. They are one of the most widely distributed species of bird in the world.

Vocalization: Screeches and hisses.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

 

Distribution

Barn Owl Distribution

Winter Range = Winter
Spring Summer Breeding Range = Spring/Summer/Breeding

In NY State
Barn Owls breed in some western and southern counties (usually in spring/summer). Winter populations are limited to the southern tier and Long Island.

Elsewhere
Barn owls can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Map

Where to spot them in Upstate NY:
Shawangunk Grasslands NWR; various wildlife refuges and parks on Long Island.

Status: common

Barn Owl signs

Look for nests in steeples, barn lofts, caves. Gray compact cylinder-shaped pellets will be abundant. They often contain bone and fur and will be gritty/sandy throughout. They will be darker and shiny when fresh.

Whitewash (droppings) will be dripped generously down tree trunks and other objects below favorite perches.

Barred OwlBarred OwlBarred OwlFind more images

Barred Owl
(Strix varia)

AKA: Hoot owl, Striped owl, Wood owl, Rain owl, Swamp owl, Eight hooter

Identifying characteristics: A moderately-sized owl with dominant light gray feathers with brown horizontal stripes on the neck and chest and vertical stripes on the belly. Brown stripes radiate from the eyes encircling the facial disc. The eyes are dark brown. It has no ear tufts.

Size: From 16 to 25 inches in length with wingspans reaching 4 ft. Females are generally larger than males (by about 10 to 20%).

Habitat: Moist coniferous or mixed forests close to water; wooded swamps. Prefers old-growth. Canopy cover for roosting and cavities in trees for nesting. Roosts in dense foliage high off the ground.

Nesting: They nest in tree cavities, but may also take over a hawk, squirrel or crow nest.

Food: Carnivore. Any small animals, especially field mice, and sometimes insects and small birds. Prey as large as rabbits are also captured if the opportunity arises. Their proximity to water allows them to swoop down and capture fish and basking frogs. Hunts nocturnally but sometimes before dark or on overcast days. Snatching prey usually involves a steep dive from a high perch.

Flight: Frequent wing beats; quiet; rarely soars, but often flies high. Video

Predators: Great Horned Owls; Humans.

Reproduction: Barred Owls begin pairing with courtship calls that begin around Feb. Actual breeding doesn’t occur until March and will last into the summer. Courtship calls are usually followed by chasing and dances. Females will lay from 2-4 white eggs, which are incubated for roughly 30 days. During this time the male does all the hunting. Juveniles leave the nest after a month to roost on a nearby branch and learn to fly after six weeks. It will be 4-6 months longer before they set out on their own. Barred owls breed once per year.

Other info.: Although they pair for life, they are solitary for most of the year, returning to their partner only during breeding season. Pairs often have adjacent territories. Barred owls live roughly 10 years in the wild.

Vocalization: A very vocal owl, often conversing with others through a series of calls and responses. Calls occur year round, but peak in February and March and then again in August. “Hoo-hoo-to-hoo-oo” and the response: “hoo-hoo to wha-aa” is common and unique to this species. A monkey-like squall is also common.

Barred Owl

Distribution

Year-round inhabitant

Year Round Range = Year round

In NY State
Barred Owls are year-long residents in all areas of the state, although scarce in Long Island.

Elsewhere
They can be found throughout the eastern United States and Canada and are spreading through the northwest. Map

Where to spot them in Upstate NY:
Howland Island WMA; Whetstone Gulf State Park; Ferd’s Bog; various parks and WMAs meeting the habitat criteria.

Status: common

Barred Owl signs

 Gray compact cylinder-shaped pellets will be abundant. They often contain bone and fur and will be gritty/sandy throughout. They will be darker and shiny when fresh.

Whitewash (droppings) will be dripped generously down tree trunks and other objects below favorite perches.

Look for them under dense cover of evergreens, up high, roosting close to trunks as wide or wider than their bodies.

 

Great Horned OwlGreat Horned OwlGreat Horned OwlFind more images

Great Horned Owl
(Bubo virginianus)

AKA: Hoot owl, Cat owl, Winged tiger

Identifying characteristics: A moderately-large-sized owl with mottled white, brown and black feathers. Small, dark horizontal bars on the underside. The upper parts are a mottled brown. The facial disc is orange-brown, outlined with bold black on the top and sides and a white band just under the chin. The eyes are a bright yellow. The beak is black. Large horn-like ear tufts protrude above the ear, giving the owl its name. These tufts can be raised or lowered. The legs and talons are large and powerful.

Size: Averaging from 18 to 25 inches in length with wingspans from 3 to 5 ft. Females are slightly larger than males.

Habitat: A variety of habitats from wooded marsh to deserts, but they prefer dense deciduous, coniferous and mixed forests. Mated pairs are permanent residents.

Nesting: They generally use abandoned red-tailed hawk, crow or heron nests.

Food: Carnivore. Hunts nocturnally. Any small animals, like rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, skunks, porcupines, or small birds. Prey as large as rabbits are also captured if the opportunity arises. Rarely amphibians, reptiles and fish. Snatching prey usually involves a swift, steep dive from a high perch with wings folded.

Flight: Strong, silent, stable, flap and glide. Video

Predators: Other great horned owls; Humans.

Reproduction: They begin pairing with courtship calls that begin in January and last throughout February. Females will lay from 2-4 white eggs, which are incubated for roughly 30 days. During this time the male does all the hunting. Juveniles leave the nest after 5 weeks to roost on a nearby branch and learn to fly after 9 weeks. After 2 months they set out on their own. Great horned owls breed once per year.

Other info.: Although they pair for life, they are solitary for most of the year, returning to their partner only during breeding season. Pairs often have adjacent territories. Great horned owls live roughly 13 years in the wild. They are competitors with the Red-tailed Hawk, sharing overlapping habitats, territories, food and nests, which the horned owls tend to take over. The hawks are diurnal, while the owls are nocturnal, allowing them both to fill a niche. The Great Horned’s size, strength and ability to live in various climates and utilize a multitude of prey have made it very successful.

Vocalization: A variety of sounds; Hoots, shrieks, coos, barks. Recognizable “hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo” from males. Male/female dialog peaks in Jan/Feb.

Great horned Owl

Great horned Owl

Distribution

Year-round inhabitant
Year Round Range = Year round

In NY State
Great Horned Owls are permanent residents in locations throughout the state.

Elsewhere
Throughout North American and some regions of South America. Map

Where to spot them in Upstate NY:
Braddock Bay WMA; Oak Orchard and Tonawanda WMA; Iroquois NWR; Montezuma NWR; Letchworth State Park; various parks and WMAs meeting the habitat criteria.

Status: common

Great Horned Owl signs

Elongate gray cylinder-shaped pellets will be abundant. They often contain bone and fur, sometimes scales or feathers, and will be gritty/sandy throughout. They will be darker and shiny when fresh.

Whitewash (droppings) will be dripped generously down tree trunks and other objects below favorite perches.

Look for them under dense cover of evergreens, up high, roosting close to trunks.

 

Long-eared OwlLong-eared OwlLong-eared OwlFind more images

Long-eared Owl
(Asio otus)

AKA: Brush owl, Cat owl, Pussy owl, Lesser horned owl, Cedar owl.

Identifying characteristics: A medium-sized owl with mottled white, brown and black feathers. The mottling is arranged in vertical streaks along the chest and belly which clearly differentiates it from great horned owls. The body is very slender with long wings that cross the back when perched and a long tail. The facial disc is rusty-brown, outlined with bold black outline and a white band just under the chin. The eyes are a bright yellow-orange and the beak is black and surrounded by light gray feathers. Large, black-lined ear tufts protrude from the top of the head. These tufts can be raised or lowered. The legs and feet are heavily feathered.

Size: Averaging from 13 to 16 inches in length with wingspans from 3 to 3.5 ft. Females are larger than males (by roughly 10%)

Habitat: Open forest or dense vegetation adjacent to grasslands or marsh. Hedgerows; gullies; small wooded patches.

Nesting: They migrate to areas with denser vegetation. Long-eareds generally use abandoned crow or hawk nests. Video

Food: Carnivore. Hunts nocturnally. Small animals such as shrews and field mice. It will fly low to the ground back and forth over fields with its head tilted (most likely listening to the ground). When prey is located it pounces on it and kills it with its talons and beak.

Flight: Silent; slow powerful wing beats in intermittent gliding low to the ground (with head tilted to the side). Ability to hover like a moth. Video

Predators: Great horned and barred owls; raccoons. Humans. Nests are vulnerable to a variety of predators.

Reproduction: They begin pairing with courtship calls that begin in February and last throughout the following spring when they begin to nest. Males will put on flight displays and clap their wings. Females will lay from 4-5 white, glossy eggs, which are incubated for roughly 27 days. During this time the male does all the hunting. Juveniles leave the nest after 3 weeks to roost on a nearby branch and learn to fly after 5 weeks. After 2 months they set out on their own. Long-eared owls breed once per year unless a clutch (their young) is lost.

Other info.: The long-eared owl’s long ears are not actually ears. They are tufts of feathers, the purpose for which is not entirely clear. Although they pair for life, they are solitary for most of the year, returning to their partner only during breeding season. Pairs often have adjacent territories. Long-eared owls rarely live more than 10 years in the wild.
When roosting, their slender form and excellent camouflage make them look just like a branch.

Vocalization: A variety of sounds; hoots, shrieks; hisses; coos. Most notable is the repetitive “hoo…hoo…hoo…hoo…(repeated continuously)” from males during breeding season. Males will also clap their wings during courtship.

Long Eared Owl (Male)

Distribution

Distribution

Year Round Range = Year round

Winter Range = Winter range

In NY State
Long-eared owls are permanent residents the northern and western regions in the state, but only winter in the southern tier.

Elsewhere
Throughout North American. Map.

Where to spot them in Upstate NY:
Braddock Bay WMA; Five Rivers EEC; Montezuma NWR; Letchworth State Park; various parks and WMAs meeting the habitat criteria.

Status: rare

Long-eared Owl signs

Elongate gray cylinder-shaped pellets will be abundant. They often contain bone and fur and will be gritty/sandy throughout. They will be darker and shiny when fresh.

Whitewash (droppings) will be dripped generously down tree trunks and other objects below favorite perches.

Look for them under dense cover of trees. Their slender shape makes them look like branches. They may also be caught flying low to the ground over fields at twilight.

Northern Saw Whet OwlNorthern  Saw-whet OwlNorthern  Saw-whet OwlFind more images

Northern Saw-whet Owl
(Aegolius acadicus)

AKA: Saw-whet, Acadian owl, Kirkland’s owl; sawwhet (misspellings: sawwhet, sawhet, saw-wet)

Identifying characteristics: A small owl with mottled white and brown feathers. Dark bars on the whitish chest and belly are vertical. Small white spot/lines on the head radiating from the facial disc, which is white around the eyes and goes from beige to brown towards the sides of the head. The head is large and round with no ear-tufts. The eyes are large and yellow-orange. The beak is black. The tail is short. The feet are large and feathered white. Video

Size: The smallest owl in North America. Averaging from 7 to 8.5 inches in length with wingspans from 17 to 22 inches wide. Females are slightly larger than males.

Habitat: Coniferous or mixed forests with abundant undergrowth and woodpecker cavities for nesting. They are migratory birds that tend to move south to warmer climates in the late fall and return in late winter. Not all specimens migrate.

Nesting: Saw-whets will nest within woodpecker holes and other tree cavities as well as nest boxes.

Food: Carnivore. Hunts nocturnally from dusk until dawn. They primarily feed on small animals such as field mice,  and shrews, but also large insects such as beetles and grasshoppers. Saw-whets will perch low to the ground and wait for prey to come by. It will pounce and kill the prey with its talons and beak. Because of its small size it will often eat the prey in pieces and store what it cannot eat on a branch nearby. If the food freezes, the owl will thaw it by incubating it like an egg.

Flight: Silent; low to the ground; fast and frequent wing beats.

Predators: Larger owls; larger hawks; raccoons; martins; humans. Nests are vulnerable to a variety of predators.

Reproduction: Males begin calling in March and continue through April. Flight displays are put on by the male and prey is usually offered to the female. After pairing, the female chooses a nest site in a tree cavity. The female lays 5-6 white eggs and incubates them for roughly 27 days. During this time the male hunts for the family. 2 to 5 weeks later the young leave the nest and learn to fly, but may return to the nest on and off for 6 to 8 more weeks. Females abandon the nest first, while the males continue to take care of the young. Saw-whets breed once per year.

Other info.: The saw-whet owl is solitary and primarily monogamous, although their migratory nature often leads them to pairing with a new mate each breeding season.

Vocalization: This owl gets its name from its most common vocalization, which sounds like a saw being whetted or sharpened. This call often sounds like a whistle or even a beep.

Saw Whet Owl

Distribution

Year-round inhabitant

Year Round Range = Year round

In NY State
Saw-whets are permanent residents throughout Upstate NY

Elsewhere
Northern states and Canada, stretching along the west cost into Mexico. Map

Where to spot them in Upstate NY:
Braddock Bay WMA; various parks and WMAs meeting the habitat criteria.

Status: common; more so during winter migrations.

Saw-whet Owl signs

Small gray cylinder-shaped pellets will be present. They often contain bone and fur and will be gritty/sandy throughout. They will be darker and shiny when fresh.
Whitewash (droppings) will be dripped generously down tree trunks and other objects below favorite perches.

Look for them under dense cover of small coniferous, low to the ground (from 3 to 8 ft). Their small and slender shape makes them look like branches.

Eastern Screech OwlEastern Screech Owl (Red Morph)Eastern Screech Owl (gray)Find more images

Eastern Screech Owl
(Megascops asio / Otus asio)

AKA: Common screech owl; Ghost owl; Dusk owl; Spirit owl; Little horned owl; Dusk owl; Cat owl; Demon owl

Identifying characteristics: A small owl with two color variations: a slightly mottled, but generally uniform gray; or a mottled reddish-brown form. In both color forms dark feathers form somewhat of a vertical striping pattern on the chest and back. They have prominent ear-tufts, which can be raised and lowered, but often tend to stand where the outer edge is flush with the side of the owl’s head. The facial disc is outlined with dark line on the sides, slightly dark feathers around the eyes, and two dark stripes that extend down from the ear tufts to towards the beak. Their feet are large and feathered. The eyes are yellow. The beak is grayish-yellow.

Size: Averaging 8 inches in length with wingspans just under 2 feet. Females are slightly larger than males.

Habitat: Can be found virtually anywhere, except at high elevations. They seek out areas with plenty of food and natural or man-made cavities for nesting. Although they prefer sparse deciduous or mixed woods, they do just fine in urban and suburban areas.

Nesting: Nests are constructed in deciduous tree or man-made cavities and are not lined with anything.

Food: Carnivore. Nocturnal; concentrating its hunting during the first several hours of darkness. They feed on small rodents, flying insects (caught on the wing), small squirrels, shrews, and birds of various sizes. Screech owls will perch in a high location and swoop down on prey when the opportunity arises.

Flight: Silent and fast with a steady wingbeat and the head tucked into the body. Rarely glides or hovers.

Predators: Larger owls; skunks; raccoons; weasels; snakes; opossums; humans.

Reproduction: Courtship calls begin in late March and last throughout mid May. Courtship involves calls and dances. Females will lay from 4-5 white eggs, which are incubated for roughly 26 days. During this time the male does all the hunting. After the eggs hatch, the female will share the hunting responsibilities. Juveniles leave the nest at 8 to 10 weeks. Screech owls generally breed once per year but may have a second clutch when resources are ample. They pair for life, but remain solitary outside of breeding season.

Other info.: Screech owls have been known to live more than 13 years in the wild and 20 years in captivity. The different color variations are not unlike blondes and brunette hair types in humans. The different morphs may mate with each other and produce viable offspring with shared traits. The color morphs may influence the type of tree the owl roosts in (for better camouflage).

Vocalization: Easily some of the most distinct owl calls with two common songs: Song 1 is a 3 to 4 second long low-pitched trill. Song one is usually repeated, with short pauses in-between or as a duet with a female. Song 2 is a higher pitched, whiny trill, often sounding like a horse. Various clucks, hisses and other noises are made when the owl is threatened.

Screech Owl Song 1

Screech Owl Song 2

Distribution

Year-round inhabitant

Year Round Range = Year round

In NY State
Screech owls can be found all over the state, except in high elevations (over 1400 ft).

Elsewhere
Across most of the US and southern Canada; most of Europe and into Asia. Map

Where to spot them in Upstate NY:
Braddock Bay WMA; municipal parks and cemeteries with sparse deciduous tree cover.

Status: Common in NY State.

Screech Owl signs

Look for nests in natural tree cavities or in bird boxes, or other man-made cavities.

Whitewash (droppings) will be dripped generously down tree trunks and other objects below favorite perches. Pellets may be present.

Look for their stubby body shape when they fly. Screech owls will often get mobbed by groups of Blue Jays, Chickadees or other songbirds defending their territory. Screech owls are often spotted in the daylight hours during one of these confrontations.

Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlShort-eared OwlFind more images

Short-eared Owl
(Asio flammeus)

AKA: Evening owl, Marsh owl, Bog owl, Field owl, Grass owl, Meadow owl

Identifying characteristics: A medium-sized owl with boldly mottled beige, white and brown feathers. Strong vertical barring is present on the underside. The body is plump compared to the long-eared owl. The facial disc has beige plumage between the eyes and surrounding the beak; black surrounding the eyes and brown radiating outward towards the rim. The chin has a band of white below the facial disc. The eyes are a bright yellow and the beak is black. Ear tufts are present and barely visibly as small protrusions or ridges at the top of the head. The wings have a very dark brown patch at the “wrists” that are clearly visible when flying. The tail is long. The legs are white.

Size: Averaging from 13 to 17 inches in length with wingspans from 3 to 3.5 ft. Females are larger than males (by roughly 10%)

Habitat: Open, flat and treeless areas like meadows, crop land, with a strong preference for marshes and bogs. Sparse ground cover is needed for nesting. They are migratory birds that tend to move south to warmer climates in the late fall and return in late winter. Not all specimens migrate.

Nesting: Short-ears nest on the ground, unlike most other owls. Nests are usually on grass tuft or within other types of vegetation and lined with grass and feathers. They are nomadic owls and rarely re-use the same nest.

Food: Carnivore. Diurnal, hunting at sunset and sunrise. During breeding season, they may begin their hunting in the late afternoon. Feed on small animals such as field mice and squirrels and sometimes insects, amphibians, and other birds. If no perch is available they will fly low to the ground back and forth over fields and may hover over dense vegetation to listen and watch for hiding prey.

Flight: Silent; strong and irregular wing beats like a moth or bat. Flies back and forth over field or marsh hunting grounds. Video

Predators: Bald Eagles; goshawks; red-tailed hawks; great-horned owls; snowy owls; skunks; raccoons; foxes; coyotes weasels; humans. Their ground nests are vulnerable to a variety of predators.

Reproduction: Breeding begins in March with elaborate flight displays wing clapping, food offerings and territorial disputes. Calls are not as frequent with this species as with other owls. The female lays 4-9 white eggs and incubates them for about a month. During this time the male does all the hunting. The young leave the nest for nearby branches after 10 to 14 days and learn how to fly after about a month. They become independent 1 to 2 weeks later. Short-eared owls generally breed only once per year. Although primarily monogamous, their migratory behavior may lead to them choosing a new mate each year.

Other info.: Although generally solitary, shortages of roosting/nesting sites (usually in winter) and abundances of prey usually push large groups to roost together. Short-eared owls rarely live more than 4 years in the wild. Our region’s loss of open habitats suitable for this species has lead to its decline and “endangered” status.

Vocalization: One of the quieter owls; hoots, barks, clucks, squeals. Most notable is the repetitive “hoo” (5-10 times) from males during breeding season. Females will shriek and cluck. Males will also clap their wings during courtship.

Short Eared Owl (Male)

Distribution

Short Eared Owl Distribution

Year Round Range = Year round
Winter Range = Winter range

In NY State
Short-eared owls can be found year-round in northern stretches, and winter-breeders in southern counties. Winter portions in the above map are generous and breeding populations are declining in New York State.

Elsewhere
Across continents in the northern stretches of the world and even into parts of South America, Africa and Asia-Pacific. Map

Where to spot them in Upstate NY:
Island Preserve; Nations’ Road Grassland Preserve; Fort Edward Grassland Preserve; recently abandoned cropland; various parks, preserves and WMAs meeting the habitat criteria.

Status: Endangered in NY State.

Short-eared Owl signs

Look for feather and grass-lined nests in grass mounds or other ground cover in open fields or marsh. Pellets may be present.
Whitewash (droppings) will be dripped generously down tree trunks and other objects below favorite perches. Pellets may be present.

Look for their moth-like flight back and forth over their hunting grounds ranging an hour before and after sunrise. Then again at sunset.

Snowy OwlSnowy OwlSnowy OwlFind more images

Snowy Owl
(Bubo scandiacus / Nyctea scandiaca)

AKA: Snow owl, Ghost owl, Arctic owl, Tundra owl, White owl.

Identifying characteristics: A large owl, primarily white, with dark brown horizontal barring or speckling. Females and juveniles tend to have heavier marking, while adult males are almost completely white. Both sexes will lighten as they age. Their black beak is almost completely covered in feathers. The facial disc is always white. The eyes are yellow. The legs and feet are heavily feathered.

Size: Averaging from 20 to 28 inches in length with wingspans averaging 5.5 ft. Females are larger than males (by roughly 10 to 15%)

Habitat: Open, flat arctic tundra; grasslands and open fields; agricultural areas; They prefer little to no snow-cover. They are migratory and nomadic birds that will fly south to warmer climates (including New York State) in the winter when prey in the tundra is scarce.

Nesting: Snowy Owls nest on the ground, unlike most other owls. Nests are usually on slightly elevated ground, boulder or other structure. Hawk nests may also be used. Nests are lined with grasses, twigs and/or feathers. They do not nest in New York.

Food: Carnivore. Diurnal, hunting during the daytime. They feed on mice, rats, rabbits, fish, and other small animals. Sometimes short-eared Owls and other birds. They hunt from perches and will swoop down to grab prey. They have the ability to find prey by noticing tiny movements and sounds through thin layers of snow.

Flight: Silent; strong wing beats an intermittent glides. Flies close to the ground in short bouts. Video

Predators: In New York State the Snowy Owl has almost no predators. They may be killed by traffic. Most are harassed by competing birds of prey. In the tundra a variety of animals attack their nests, such as wolves and foxes.

Reproduction: The snowy owl does not breed in New York. Breeding begins in April/May with elaborate flight displays, dances and prey offerings from the male. Calls are not as frequent with this species as with other owls. The female lays 5-8 white eggs and incubates them just over a month. During this time the male does all the hunting. The young leave the nest for nearby branches after roughly 25 days and learn how to fly after about two months. They become independent 1 to 2 weeks later. Snowy owls breed only once per year. Although primarily monogamous, their nomadic behavior leads to them choosing a new mate each year.

Other info.: Solitary; rarely found in groups outside of breeding season. Snowy owls rarely live more than 9 years in the wild. These heavily-feathered birds can cool off on warm days by panting and spreading and waving their wings.

Vocalization: Snowy owls are generally silent during their stay in New York State. In the tundra they bark, hoot and emit a variety of sounds. Video

Distribution

Snowy Owl Distribution

Winter Range = Winter range

In NY State
Snowy owls visit our region in the winter to hunt small mammals such as mice, rabbits, rats and voles.

Elsewhere
Across continents in the northern stretches of the world. Map

Where to spot them in Upstate NY:
Montezuma NWR; Braddock Bay WMA; Lake Ontario Parks across the state; various parks and WMAs meeting the habitat criteria.

Status: migrant

Snowy Owl signs

Whitewash (droppings) will be dripped generously down tree trunks and other objects below favorite perches. Pellets may be present.

Look for them perched near open fields and lakeshores with little to no snow/ice-cover in winter. Airports, fence posts, utility poles and trees.

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