Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Owlish behavior

August 15. 2014 6:05PM

BARRED OWLS are perhaps the most commonly seen owls in New England. Along with the great horned owl, these two species are the largest of our native owls. Both owls hunt mostly at night and at sunrise retire to the hollow of a tree, the cover of a hemlock or other thick-branched bower. They are found chiefly in our swamps and woodlands and both species can infrequently be seen perched on a limb beside the edge of a wood or even beside a well-traveled highway during the daylight hours.

Barred owls often do not appear as shy as some of our other owls. On occasion at one’s approach they will appear curious and cock their heads in a quizzical manner. By moving cautiously and without any quick movements, it is possible to get quite close to them. However, if you think they can’t see well in daylight, you will have a surprise in store, for they have excellent daytime vision and when startled they will beat a nasty retreat to a more secluded place.

Frank M. Chapman, in his book “Bird Life,” published by D. Appleton and Company in 1901, wrote: “In both voice and appearance the barred owl seems the most human of our owls. Its call is a deep-voiced questioning, ‘whoo-whoo-whoo, who-whoo, to whoo-ahh,’ which may be heard at a distance of half a mile. It echoes through the woods at night with startling force, and the stories told of its effect on persons who were ignorant of its source are doubtless not without foundation. Other calls are a long-drawn ‘who-o-o-ah,’ and rarely a thrilling, weird shriek.

When two or more owls are together, they sometimes join in a most singular concerted performance. One utters about 10 rapid hoots, while the other, in a slightly higher tone, hoots about half as fast, both birds ending together with a ‘whoo-ah.’ At other times they may hoot and laugh in a remarkable and quite indescribable manner.”

Barred owls along with the great horned owl are two of our largest native owls. The barred measures from 17 to 24 inches in length while great horned measures about an inch longer. Interestingly, in both owls and hawks, the females tend to be larger than the males.

In contrast, the smallest owls found in New England are the saw-whet owl (7 to 8-1/2 inches) and the screech owl (7 to 10 inches) in length.

I haven’t seen a screech owl for several years. Even so, from time to time, I have heard its rather long, tremulous calls. It is the only small eastern owl that has ear tufts. There are, however, two color phases, gray and red-brown. If you ever see a small, bright red-brown owl that is “eared” you have seen a screech owl.

Pliny the Elder (237-79) was a Roman writer and was the foremost authority on the sciences in ancient Europe. Amid his many works he authored a multi-volume encyclopedia that he published or later was published by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. These volumes contained the wisdom of his time on natural science.

Within his writings, Pliny frequently transcribed learned sayings. Among them was a descriptive reference to the screech owl that Edward Howe Forbush quoted in his “Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States” as follows: “The scritch owl alwayes betoken with some heavie newes, and is most execrable and accursed.

In summer he is the very monster of the night, neither singing nor crying out cleare, but uttering a certaine heavie groane of doleful mourning, and therefore it is to be seene to flie abroad in any place it prognosticateth some fearful misfortune.”

Following the Pliny quote Forbush continued: “Many superstitious folk still believe that this little owl is an ill-omened fowl. Its silent, ghostly flight and its mournful night-cries have given it a place among the powers of darkness in the minds of the simple and unlearned.

Many still shudder whenever they hear its plaintive, long, drawn-out wail, which, though it seems to carry a note of sadness, is merely a love song, unappreciated except, perhaps, for the ears for which it is especially intended.”

One evening, on Aug. 14, 1854, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal: “I sit three-quarters up the hill. The crickets creak strong and loud now after sunset. Ah! I need solitude ... I hear the tremulous squealing scream of a screech owl in the Holden Woods sounding like the neighing of a horse.”

Screech owls nest in the hollow of a tree that also serves as a retreat during hot or cold weather.

Stacey Cole’s address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, NH 03446. “Stacey Cole’s New Hampshire: A Lyrical Landscape” is available at

ColumnOutdoorsNature TalksNew Hampshire

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