by Susan Harris
A capacity crowd turned out to hear naturalist Andy Brown of Battle Creek Cypress Swamp talk about the “Owls of Maryland, one of Homestead’s Winter Workshops), and at least this audience member found out just how little she knows about these birds of prey. Here are just some examples:
- Only two owls make the “hoot” sound.
- Though owls look smart to us, they’re not as smart as crows (the most intelligent of all birds. See, who knew?)
- What makes them such good killers? Muscular legs and long, sharp claws (talons) on their feet for catching prey, then a sharp beak for tearing the prey apart.
- Their eyes can’t rotate up and down or side to side, but their heads can – 270 degrees, though it happens so fast, it looks like their heads are spinning a full 360.
- Rather than building their own nests, they use the nests of other birds, mostly crows. Nest boxes DO work, though, attracting screech and barred owls, but be sure to match the size of the hole to the location preferred by that size owl (the larger barred owl will only use a box that’s in a forest; the smaller screech, overlooking an open space.)
- Their faces are either round or heart-shaped.
- Like all birds of prey, the females are larger.
- To spot them during the day, look for “white wash” on tree trunks (their thick white excrement) or look on the ground for their pellets (indigestible waste) and look up to see their daytime roosting spots.
Of the eight owls seen in Maryland, let’s start with the ones that live here year-round (called “resident” or “nonmigratory”):
The small Eastern Screech Owls are very abundant, especially around humans. They fly very fast and are fierce hunters, known to catch and devour even squirrels, though squirrels are larger than they are. They also eat rodents and insects, and in turn are eaten by hawks and larger owls. Their call isn’t a hoot but more of a horse’s whinny, followed by a trill sound.
The screech owl shown above with Andy was found as a juvenile with one injured eye, so it’s not releasable. This little guy eats four mice a day, and can live up to 30 years in captivity (versus a life expectancy well under 10 years in the wild).
The Barred Owl is also abundant here and is big, with a wing span up to three and a half feet across. The only owl that’s not totally nocturnal, it can be seen out and about near sundown and sun-up.
The Great Horned Owl is the largest of the bunch and with its strong build and aggressive hunting techniques, it feeds on just about anything. Interestingly, it’s the only predator of the common skunk, an animal that’s well defended against most dangers but not this large owl – because skunks can’t spray up! Rabbits make up 80 percent of their diet, however. Their young hatch in early February and by March they’ve fledged and the nest is available for crows (who actually built the nests). This is owl that sounds the stereotypical “hoot”.
The Barn Owl is a “species of concern” in Maryland due to the loss of its habitat – the fallow fields and meadows that support the one animal that makes up 90 percent of the Barn owl’s diet – the common vole. There’s one known pair in Calvert County; they’re more common in the Chincoteague and Blackwater areas.
Migratory owls that are seen in Maryland less often include the Saw-whet, a tiny owl that’s here only in the fall, on its way south from New England and Canada. It’s named for the sound it makes – like whetting a saw. The small Long-eared Owl is very rare here. The Short-eared Owl is also uncommon, and seen mainly on Eastern Shore. The Snowy Owl only comes south to Maryland when hunting is bad in its Arctic habitat. Because they’re large, showy and rarely seen here, when they do grace us with their presence the birder listservs herald the news.
To learn more about owls:
- Owls of Maryland, by MD’s Department of Natural Resources
- The Maryland Ornithological Society
- MD Osprey is a great listserv (email group) for alerts about rare bird sightings
- National Audubon Society