Jay Kaplan, Director of the Roaring Brook Nature Center, has given 2 presentations on the ‘Owls of Connecticut’. One on February 16, 2022, and the other on December 12, 2022.
What follows is a combined summary of those talks.
There are 19 species of owls in the United States. Owls are predators. The smallest owls in the world are elf owls. They live in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The burrowing owl lives in Florida. It is the mascot of Florida Atlantic University. The northern spotted owl is listed as endangered. Logging was stopped in the national forests where spotted owls live, in hopes of protecting the species.
How do you find an owl?
Look for owl pellets on the ground. Pellets are masses of the undigested parts of an owl’s prey. An owl swallows mice whole, and digests everything but the fur and bones. You can even find complete skeletons in owl pellets. When you see pellets, look up in the trees. You might see an owl.
Watch crows. Owls and hawks prey on crows. Crows will band together to harass hawks and owls if they find them during the day. Chickadees will do the same to spotted owls. Crows will sometimes go as far as killing an owl.
Look in trees. Some owls roost in the holes of trees. Please don’t knock on a tree. If you just scratch a tree, an owl might poke her head out.
Listen for owl songs. Owls are the first birds to start singing in spring. Their calls may travel up to a mile. They tend to sing at dusk or early morning; but don’t confuse the song of a mourning dove with that of an owl.
How do you see owls when you are not in the woods? As the sun comes up, owls will sit in the entryways of their holes to warm up. This is especially true of screech owls.
When do owls lay their eggs?
Owls begin to lay their eggs in February. They don’t make their own nests. They may use an abandoned squirrel nest to raise their young.
A robin will lay a clutch of eggs over a period of a week. The robin will not begin to incubate her eggs until all of them have been laid. A mother owl will begin to incubate as soon as she has laid the first egg. Births will be staggered. The young grow very quickly. First-born owls have the best chance for success.
Owls who live in Connecticut
Barred owls, great horned owls and screech owls are the most common owls in Connecticut.
The barred owl is the most common owl in our state. There are many barred owls in Berlin. These birds usually start to appear in March. They tend to burrow in trees. They have incredible hearing, which they use while hunting. They eat frogs, crayfish, birds, and snakes. They will eat anything that they can catch. If you have a great horned owl in your yard, you will not see barred owls. Big owls eat smaller owls. Barred owls in the western U.S. will eat northern spotted owls. Jay did a great impression of the barred owl’s call. He described the song as “who cooks for you, who cooks for fall”.
Great horned owls also live in Berlin. They weigh about 4 pounds. Pound for pound, they are the most powerful owls in the forest. Great horned owls will eat birds, mice, chipmunks, and squirrels. These birds can take large prey, such as skunks and other owls. They are the only predators who eat skunks. How is it possible for these owls to eat skunks? Most birds have a poor sense of smell. Owls have a third clear eyelid which protects their eyes, but allows them to see. This eyelid will protect their eyes from the spray of skunks.
The first chick to hatch is the largest. The last is usually the smallest and weakest. Generally, not all of the young will survive. They will sometimes be eaten by their own families. As the young grow up, they stand at the edge of the nest to attempt flight. They often fall out of the nest, or stay on the branches. Their talons are very dangerous starting at an early age.
Eastern screech owls are the third most common owls in Connecticut. Sadly, their numbers are declining. Screech owls are not found in the woods. They live along rivers, wetlands and in built-up communities. They nest in backyards. We may not know that they are there. They nest in the holes of trees. Cavities in sycamores are ideal nesting spots for these birds. Their plumage might be grey, red, or an intermediate brown. Their call sounds a like a whistle mimicking the whinny of a horse. If you learn the whistle, you can call them in!
They eat mice and other small rodents, as well as large insects. Screech owls have a tough time in a lot of snow. This may cause them to move a bit south for the winter. They can’t eat large animals, so they wait for mice to cross plowed roads in winter. Mice will hide under the snow most of the time to keep warm.
Raptors get hit by cars more often in winter than at other times of the year because they hunt by the roadside.
Northern saw-whet owls are the smallest owls in Connecticut. These owls arrive in November, and depart in March. We rarely see them. They live in evergreen trees, and are good at camouflage. They make an odd screechy sound that has the rhythm of a back-up alarm on a truck. If a saw-whet owl in mid-flight sees a predator owl, she will drop to the ground like a dead weight to take cover.
The long-eared owl is rare in our state.
Short-eared owls are found in open farmland in upstate New York. Connecticut does not have this type of habitat.
Barn owls are found on every continent except Antarctica, yet they are rare in Connecticut. They generally live further south and west of here. Their song is the scariest birdsong that Jay has ever heard. It is a creepy screeching sound. Barn owls have lots of babies. One owl can eat as many as 2,000 rodents each year. For this reason, the barn owl is known as the farmer’s friend.
Snowy owls sometimes come to Connecticut in winter. They live far north on the tundra. They often go to the shoreline when they come to our state. They are active day or night. They may weigh up to 5 pounds.
The great gray owl and the northern hawk owl are also rarely seen in Connecticut. The northern hawk owl was last seen here in 1934!
Owls fly silently because the edges of their feathers are VERY soft. They can turn their heads 270 degrees, so they can see what is behind them. Their eyes are set in their sockets. They cannot move their eyes around in the way that people can.
Owl ears are slots on both sides of their heads. They do not have ear lobes like people do. The ears are offset. One is higher than the other. The round face of an owl brings sound waves to his ears. This amplifies the sound. It is similar to the effect that we humans get when we cup our ears. Owls use their excellent hearing to find prey.
Birds sing to mate and to establish territory. Owls are VERY emotional. They can get quite violent with each other during the breeding season.
As noted above, most birds have a poor sense of smell. People once though that a mother bird would reject a lost baby bird who was put back into her nest. Most often, the mom will take the young bird under her wing. As Jay said, “Birds can’t count.”.
There is just enough food in a territory to support one pair of owls over a winter. Adult owls will drive juveniles out, forcing them to make their own way in another location.
Owls have eruptive years. People once thought that snowy owls came to places like Connecticut because of a bad year for food in the north. Now they believe that owls come here because food was plentiful, with many young birds surviving.
Where to learn more about owls
Jay encouraged us to visit The Roaring Brook Nature Center to take part in their activities and to see live birds. You can learn more at roaringbrook.org.
Please visit allaboutbirds.org and audubon.org to see stunning photo of owls, and to listen to recordings of their calls.
The Connecticut DEEP publishes a magazine called “Connecticut Wildlife”. Digital copies of this magazine are available at https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Connecticut-Wildlife-Magazine.
The digital issues are available for all years going back to 2000. The Berlin-Peck Memorial Library retains paper copies of the magazine for one year.
The March/April 2022 issue has a cover photo of three young great horned owls in a nest, along with an article about watchable wildlife.
The November/December 2021 issue has an article about owls which includes photographs.
The cover of the January/February 2021 issue shows an eastern screech owl sitting in a tree cavity.
The issue for January/February 2019 has a cover photo of a short-eared owl, along with a related article.
The November/December 2016 issue has a cover photo of a barred owl, with an article about these birds.
The March/April 2011 issue has an article about great horned owls, with a cover photo of a great horned owl sitting on a nest.
The January/February 2002 issue has an article about owls, with a cover photo of a snowy owl.