Have you found an owl you can't identify?
We can help. Try to get a photo of the owl and email it to us at email@example.com. We will try to identify the owl for you. If the owl turns out to be a rare visitor, having a documentary photo or video can validate the record.
Which owls live in New England?
Twelve species of owls have been recorded in New England, although several of them are quite rare. Click on these short accounts of the twelve species (listed in order of prevalence around New England)- Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Snowy Owl, Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl, Boreal Owl, Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Burrowing Owl.
Other owls not native to New England that you might see at an Eyes On Owls program include the Eurasian Eagle Owl and the Spectacled Owl.
A note on measurements: Length and wingspan measurements vary +/- 5% while weights can vary +/- 30%. With owls, the females are often larger and heavier than the males.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
Length: 22 "; Wingspan: 44 "; Weight: 3.1 lbs.
This is the most widespread owl in North America, although in many parts of northern New England they can be uncommon. This large owl occurs in urban areas as well as most other habitats, though some forest is required. In the Boston area, Great Horned Owls are residents at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown, Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park in Boston, and the Blue Hills of Milton, Canton, and Quincy. Urban Great Horned Owls are usually more acclimated to people, hence easier to observe than their often wary suburban and rural compatriots.
But you don't have to travel to Boston to hear one. Chances are good to great that you have Great Horned Owls in your town. Listen for their distinctive four note hoots on a calm late winter night - Hoo-Hoo, Hoo-Hoo.
Great Horned Owls are the first New England owls to nest (if one excludes the Barn Owl which can lay eggs any month of the year). Great Horneds are usually incubating eggs by late February or early March.
Great Horned Owls nest in old stick nests of Common Crows, Red-tailed Hawks, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons and others.
Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Length: 21 "; Wingspan: 42"; Weight: 1.6 lbs.
In many parts of New England, this is the most common owl to be seen or, more likely, heard. An owl of mixed wooded areas, swamps, and wetlands, the Barred Owl's classic eight note call is often described as sounding like "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"
Mark first heard Barred Owls hooting as a kid on backpacking trips into New Hampshire's White Mountains. Barred owls often call and hunt on overcast days. In the winter, they can sunbathe along a woodland edge.
Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls can frequent the same habitats, although usually not at the same time. From the Eyes On Owls compound, we often hear and see Barred Owls coming in, to visit our non-releasable Barred Owls. Years ago, it was Great Horned Owls that came into the compound. Now the Great Horneds are only heard in the distance and the Barred Owls are back. After all, it was the Barred Owls that were here in our early years, and then the Great Horned Owls arrived and seemed to have pushed the Barred Owls out.
In the last five years, Barred Owls have been spreading onto Cape Cod as nesters. They have been confirmed nesting in Mashpee, and they probably nest in Falmouth and other towns on the Cape.
In the winter, some Barred Owls (perhaps the young of the year) wander from their home territories and turn up in unexpected places like the boat ramp at Salisbury Beach State Reservation (MA) or Faneuil Hall, Boston, where urban mice, rats and squirrels provide a steady food source.
Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)
Length: 8.5 "; Wingspan: 20 "; Weight: 6 oz.
Eastern Screech Owls come in two distinct color phases: gray (left) and rusty red (right). The gray phase seems to be slightly more common than red phase in the northern part of the screech owl's range.
Like Northern Saw-whet Owls, Screech Owls nest in cavities, or holes in trees. Unlike Saw-whet Owls, Screech Owls do not migrate. One way owl enthusiasts can improve their area for owls is to put up nesting boxes for Screech Owls. If you face the box so that you can monitor it from your home, you will more readily know when an owl is in residence. It's best to wrap the nesting tree with some aluminum flashing to prevent predators like raccoons from climbing the tree to raid the nest. Or you can mount the box on a metal pole to discourage predators from climbing. It's best to put up at least two boxes, spaced apart, since in New England, squirrels will often take over one of the boxes.
Savvy birders often imitate a Screech Owl trill to trigger songbirds into mobbing behavior, making the tiny songbirds much more visible and countable.
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Length: 16"; Wingspan: 28 "; Weight: 3 oz.
Saw-whet Owls take the cuteness prize, with tiny size and endearing appearance. If you find a Saw-whet Owl, move slowly and quietly and the bird will probably remain in place, allowing you a close view.
Saw-whet Owls probably nest more frequently than is realized (this may be true for many of the breeding owls of New England).The best way to see if you have them in your area is to listen for their distinctive tooting calls. If you think you hear the back-up warning of a truck in the woods behind your house, check it out. It's probably a Saw-whet Owl tooting.
Saw-whet Owls can be seen year round in New England, but the owl you find in summer is not the owl you'll see come winter. Saw-whets that nest in New England migrate south to the central seaboard and Appalachians. Saw-whets that we see in the winter in New England most likely nested at higher elevations in the mountains of New England or to the north in Canada's boreal forests.
Like Screech Owls, Saw-whet Owls are cavity nesters, and they will use an owl box.
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Length: 23 "; Wingspan: 52 "; Weight: 4 lbs.
Snowy Owls nest on the Arctic tundra in northern climes, including Canada and Alaska. When prey, mostly lemmings, is plentiful, the owls may nest and produce a large number of young. When New England has large Snowy Owl incursions, it's thought this reflects the successful arctic breeding season of the previous summer. Some theories say that Snowy Owls arriving in New England are starving, but owl researchers have largely refuted that theory. Some winters, snowy owls can be quite scarce, but it's a rare winter that at least a few don't turn up. The first Snowy Owls in New England usually start appearing in November though some years it can be as early as late October.
Wide-open coastal locations with lots of waterfowl seem to have the edge in attracting wintering Snowy Owls. Though it's not a good place to observe them, Boston's Logan Airport nearly always has the high count for snowy owls tallied in a winter. Researchers remove the snowy owls from the airport because of the airstrike danger. Relocated birds are often color marked, so if you see a Snowy with red, green or blue color on the back of the head, you're probably watching a bird that's been moved from Logan. If you see a color marked Snowy Owl, report it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Better places to observe a Snowy Owl in Massachusetts are Salisbury Beach State Reservation, Plum Island and Newburyport, Crane Beach and Duxbury Beach and various undeveloped beaches on Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
Snowy Owls hunt day or night. Snowy Owls can sit tight, perhaps behind a bush or low dune out of the cold winter wind, for hours. A spotting scope and binoculars are key tools to have when searching for snowy owls.
In calm weather, Snowy Owls may perch on high points for a lookout view. We've seen Snowy Owls sitting on an Osprey nesting platform, telephone poles, the New Hampshire State House dome in Concord, a house chimney in Salisbury MA and Duxbury MA as well as the more common perch of driftwood, dunes and salt hay staddles.
In winter, Snowy Owls are mostly silent unless they are being harassed by a Peregrine Falcon on the beach. Then you might hear a Snowy Owl let loose a cackle as it faces off the troublesome falcon.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Length: 16"; Wingspan: 42"; Weight: 1 lb.
An uncommon-to-rare owl that occurs in southern New England. Barn Owls reach the northern limit of their range in Massachusetts, though a few may have nested historically in southern New Hampshire. It's a medium-sized owl that is light colored, with males whiter than females.
The largest population of Barn Owls in Massachusetts occurs on Martha's Vineyard. Extended cold winters can cause the population to die back, but the Barn Owls seem to ebb and flow.
Although not to be confused with the widespread Barred Owl, both Barred and Barn owls have dark brown eyes (that look all black). All other owls in New England have yellow and black eyes.
Barn Owls nest in cavities, owl boxes, and old buildings. If you live near agricultural land or a salt marsh in southern New England, try putting up a barn owl nesting box. Let us know at email@example.com if you succeed in hosting a family of Barn Owls.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Length: 15 "; Wingspan: 38 "; Weight: 12 oz.
Short-eared Owls are almost gone from New England as a breeding bird. In Massachusetts, the only place they still nest is Nantucket. Short-eareds may sporadically nest in Downeast Maine and Vermont, but this is rare. Since Short-eared owls nest on the ground, they are particularly vulnerable to ground predators like foxes, skunks, raccoons and cats (both pets and feral). The barking call of the Short-eared Owl in most often heard on the nesting territory.
In the winter, the Short-eared Owl is regularly seen in New England, though it's never common. Large meadows are good places to check, especially towards dusk, as well as salt marshes that abut barrier beaches or uplands. Plum Island and Salisbury Beach State Reservation are good winter locations to see this owl most years. Their moth-like flight is magical to watch, as they hunt over marsh and field.
Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)
Length: 15 "; Wingspan: 36 "; Weight: 9 oz.
Long-eared Owls are uncommon to rare in New England, and can be the most difficult owl to find of all the owls that regularly occur in Masssachusetts. They nest here on occasion, but the bird and the nest will likely be difficult to locate. Long-eared Owls are rarely heard calling away from the nest.
The owls use the old stick nests of hawks and crows, or sometimes the old leaf nest of a gray squirrel. Long-eareds typically roost in thick trees but usually hunt open areas, making them more visible at dusk. Long-eared Owl roosts are often communal, meaning two or more birds may be loosely grouped in a patch of thick woods.
If you find Long-eared Owls roosting, try not to disturb them or cause them to flush. Use binoculars to observe them from a distance.
Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus)
Length: 10 "; Wingspan: 21 "; Weight: 5 oz.
Boreal Owls are rare visitors to New England from the boreal forest of Canada. If you think you've found a Boreal Owl, document it with a photo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boreal Owls were recordered as having been nesting in New Hampshire in 2001 and probably have sporadically nested in Vermont and Maine, although this isn't confirmed.
In 1996, a Boreal Owl showed up in a yew tree outside 270 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. As with most Boreal Owls, this bird was quite fearless and allowed scores of people to observe it from the sidewalk, only a few feet away.
Boreal owls are cavity nesters and will nest in an owl box, but finding one nesting in a box in New England would be big news.
At first glance, one might mistake a Northern Saw-whet Owl for a Boreal Owl. Boreal Owls (10 inch length) are a bit larger than Saw-whet Owls (8 inch length), and the forehead of a Boreal Owl has spots while the Saw-whet has fine streaks. Boreal owls have pale beaks while the beak of a Saw-whet Owl is dark. Dark smudgy cheek patches can be a clue that you are looking at a Boreal Owl and not a Saw-whet.
Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)
Length: 27 "; Wingspan: 52 "; Weight: 2.4 lbs.
Since Great Grays are rare visitors to New England, many years can pass between sightings. If you think you've found a Great Gray Owl, document it with a photo and email it to us at email@example.com. Great Gray Owls nest in the boreal forests of Canada and western United States, where their main prey is the red-backed vole (like the boreal owl). If vole numbers collapse, it's thought that starving Great Gray Owls may irrupt southward.
Minnesota had a massive incursion of Great Gray Owls, Boreal Owls and Northern Hawk Owls in the winter of 2004-2005. More than 1000 Great Grays moved into the state and some estimates peg the invasion at close to 2000 birds. Here in New England, we haven't come close to those numbers on an invasion year.
The most recent documented sighting of a Great Gray Owl in Massachusetts is a bird that hundreds of people got to see in Rowley in 1996. The bird stayed in Rowley for more than two months (February - April).
Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)
Length: 16"; Wingspan: 28 "; Weight: 11 oz.
A rare and sporadic visitor to New England, records for this owl come mostly from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. If you've found a Northern Hawk Owl Hawk in New England, document it with a photo and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Northern Hawk Owls are exceedingly rare in the southern New England states.
Hawk Owls are highly observable, thanks to their fearlessness of people and their diurnal hunting habits. They are adapted for cold weather hunting with short legs that are well covered by thick feathers.
Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
Length: 9.5 "; Wingspan: 21 "; Weight: 5 oz.
This is not an owl one expects to see in New England. In fact, Burrowing Owls are rare vagrants to New England. If you think you have found a Burrowing Owl, document it with a photo and email it to email@example.com. Two populations of Burrowing Owls, from southern Florida and from western North America, could contribute visitors to the Northeast region. The Florida population doesn't migrate while the western population does.
For Massachusetts, there are only seven accepted records for Burrowing Owl.
Other Eyes On Owls species not native to New England:
Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo)
Length: 23-29 inches; Wingspan: 55 - 79 inches; Weight: 3.3 - 9.4 lbs.
Considered by some to be the largest owl in the world (Blakiston's Fish Owl can be slightly larger), the Eurasian Eagle Owl is found from Spain and Portugal in the west, north to Scandinavia, eastward to Siberia, south to southern China. In many parts of Europe this owl is absent or endangered. Some countries have reintroduced Eurasian Eagle Owls with captive hatched birds. Historically, they do not nest in Britain, Ireland or Iceland, though probable escaped or reintroduced Eagle Owls now nest in Scotland. Pesticides, nest disturbance and habitat loss seem to be the largest factors in its decline in many parts of the range.
Besides its large size, Eurasian Eagle Owls are notable for their intense orange and black eyes and booming hoot of the males. Prey varies in size from small rodents and shrews to hedgehogs and hares, large birds and sometimes carrion. Eagle Owls are quite adept at running on the ground.
Often nest on cliffy ledges, old stick nests of large birds or on the ground amongst rocks or at the base of a tree.
In captivity, Eagle Owls can exceed 60 years of age though the oldest known wild Eurasian Eagle Owl was 19.
Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata)
Length: 18 inches; Wingspan: 30 inches; Weight: 1.7 lbs.
Found from southern Mexico, through Central America and into South America south to northern Argentina and Bolivia in subtropical and tropical forests. Can occur up to 4500 feet elevation in the mountains of Costa Rica. Spectacled Owls get their name from the white facial markings set against a dark facial disk that someone thought looked like spectacles or eyeglasses. The striking markings and coloration of Spectacled Owls makes them blend well with the forest when one thinks of the dense shadows and brilliant sunlit highlights in the high contrast lighting of tropical forest.
Spectacled Owls prey on small mammals, small birds, insects, spiders and crabs.The male's territorial song is a rapid sequence of notes that one reference describes as sounding like pok-pok-bog--bog-bog-bo-bo-bo. Males also make growling sounds and a high pitched whoop call, as observed in the two male owls that reside with us at Eyes On Owls.
All text and photographs ©2010 Mark Wilson. Reuse for web or print not permitted.