Latest For the Birds column: Owls of winter

Jeannie Merwin of Marlow got this shot of a Barred Owl in her yard. She said the owl returns to her yard every January.

Jeannie Merwin of Marlow got this shot of a Barred Owl in her yard. She said the owl returns to her yard every January.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers:

I’ve never had great luck finding owls, but I always enjoy hearing when other people do.

Such was the case last week when New Hampshire resident Jeannie Merwin let me know that the Barred Owl that returns to her yard each year on Jan. 1 was a few days late and arrived on Jan. 4. She sent a great photo of the beautiful bird and added another photo of the owl with a Downy Woodpecker and Black-capped Chickadee also in the frame. So much for the big, bad owl.

Imagine having an owl show up at your yard like clockwork each year. I would look forward to it months ahead of time.

Barred Owls are one of New England’s most common owls, along with Great-horned Owls and Eastern Screech Owls. In my years of watching birds in this region, I’ve had decent luck finding Barred Owls, poor luck finding Great-horned Owls and almost no luck finding Eastern Screech Owls. Lucky and observant birdwatchers may also find Northern Saw-whet Owls and Barn Owls in New England.

Winter brings sightings of Snowy Owls, Long-eared Owls and Short-eared Owls and the very rare sightings of Great Gray Owls or Northern Hawk Owls. I’ve seen my share of Snowy Owls, but nary a glimpse of the others.

Owls, of course, are often heard even when they are not seen. I heard a bunch of owls in my neighborhood, even in my yard, back in October. A few Great-horned Owls were close by and I also heard a Barred Owl or two in the distance.

October is when Great-horned Owls set up territories and pairs call to each other. Their schedule is several months ahead of most birds in New England. In December they set up nest sites, often taking over an old squirrel or hawk’s nest. The female is sitting on a nest by January while the males hunt.

I joked about the smaller birds in Jeannie’s photo mocking the Barred Owl. They likely just knew the owl wasn’t ready to hunt. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t have been so bold. An owl’s diet varies greatly, everything from skunks and squirrels, to birds and mice. The diet also veers off into somewhat unexpected territory, such as reptiles, amphibians and fish.

I recall years ago when another New Hampshire resident invited me to her house to check out a Barred Owl in the backyard. It was winter and the owl was perched near the koi pond in the backyard. The pond was unfrozen but only a few fish swam in the water. The owl had eaten the rest of them.

It remains to be seen whether the owls I heard in my yard in October have set up shop for a nesting site near my house. I highly doubt it, however. Even though I haven’t looked carefully yet, I haven’t heard anything lately and I’m sure I would have by now.

One quick owl tip before I sign off for the week. To assist in finding owls, listen for crows or Blue Jays squawking during the day. If a crow or jay finds an owl roosting, they may mob the larger bird by ganging up on it. The squawking by crows and jays calls in other reinforcements, often dozens of them.

I used this method before, but have only found hawks so far. Crows and jays don’t like hawks in their territory, either.

3 thoughts on “Latest For the Birds column: Owls of winter

  1. Hi Chris — Great column & fine Barred Owl picture. I always like hearing what’s going on in New Hampshire! And how I love hearing Barred Owls at night when I’m up there in the summer.
    I saw an interesting bird on the back fire escape here in Manhattan this morning. It had a long tail & was about the right size for a mockingbird. However it was not gray, but a somewhat streaked brownish color.
    Cheers Susan


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