Owls are predators–they catch, kill and eat other animals in order to survive. This predation is neither cruel nor wasteful and has been going on for millions of years. It seldom upsets anything except perhaps a few people. An owl killing and eating another animal is no different from a robin eating a worm or a gull eating a fish. Although some owl species are diurnal (active by day), most owls hunt at night and are seldom observed by humans. Because of this nocturnal (nighttime) existence, they are little known and often misunderstood, even though some owls live their entire lives in close proximity to man.
Hunting at night, owls use their extraordinary vision and excellent hearing to locate their prey. Special adaptations such as wide wings, lightweight bodies and unusually soft, fluffy feathers allow them to fly silently. Owls seize their prey, usually a rodent or other small mammal, and kill it with their powerful feet. If the prey is small enough, it is swallowed whole; otherwise the food is torn apart by the owl’s strong, hooked beak. The owl’s digestive system assimilates the nutritious portions of the prey; the undigested parts (hair, bones, claws, teeth, etc.) are regurgitated in the form of pellets. These pellets, found at roosting sites, can be examined to determine the owl’s diet.
There are eighteen species of owls in North America; eight of these can be found in our area. Some species, like the Screech Owl and Great-horned Owl, live here year-round; others, like the Snowy Owl and the Saw-whet Owl, are winter visitors.
Even though we live in a part of the country that is densely inhabited, most of our native owl populations appear stable. There have been some adverse effects on certain species due mainly to habitat loss and other environmental factors. The Barred Owl, for example, a year-round dweller in swamps and deep woods, is on the Threatened Species list in New Jersey because of diminishing habitat. All owls are protected by state and federal regulations. It is illegal to kill or capture an owl; it is also illegal to possess an owl, living or dead, without the proper permits from both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of New Jersey.
Owls pose no threat to humans, although adult birds will defend their territory and their young against any intruders, human or otherwise. Unfortunately, superstitions and untruths about owls still persist which have subjected this group of birds to unwarranted suspicion and persecution. We hope, with knowledge and understanding of the owl’s true character, these fears and misgivings will be replaced by tolerance and respect for these unique birds.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Barn Owls, sometimes called “Monkeyfaced” owls because of their heart-shaped faces, are strictly nocturnal. As their name suggests, they commonly select man-made structures in which to live: silos, water tanks, church towers and barns are favored sites.They are 14 to 20 inches tall with a wing-span of 40 to 45 inches. Their color is tawny or golden above and white or pale cinnamon below. They have long, broad wings and are graceful and somewhat moth-like in flight. Barn Owls do not hoot, but are very vocal nevertheless. Their various sounds include hissing, screeching, beak snapping, and a cry best described as a maniacal shriek. These owls breed throughout New Jersey and in some areas are fairly common.
Barred Owl (Strix varia)
The Barred Owl is one of our largest owls, 16 to 23 inches tall with a 38 to 45 inch wingspan. It can be recognized by its large rounded head, lack of feather tufts, and dark brown eyes. This owl is predominantly nocturnal and lives in deep woods and swamps. It is our most vocal owl, and is heard more often than seen. It has a wide variety of calls, many impossible to describe. The most often heard call is the “eight-hooter,” given in two groups of four hoots: “Hoo-hoohoo-hoo; hoo-hoo-hoo-hoowah.” The last note slides downward in tone. The bird feeds mainly on small mammals, but being an opportunist, it also consumes fish, snakes and frogs. The Barred Owl is on the Threatened Species list in the state of New Jersey due to loss of habitat.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
The Great Horned Owl is New Jersey’s most impressive owls. Standing 18 to 25 inches tall, with a wingspan of 48 to 60 inches, it is indeed a powerful and fearless bird of prey. Its distinguishing characteristics are long feather tufts, large bright yellow eyes, and a white “collar” around the throat. This owl is commonly called the “Hoot-Owl”. Its deep-pitched, booming notes, “Whoo-whoo-whoo”, repeated three to eight times, can be heard for miles on a still night. The Great Horned Owl is primarily a woodland species, but is occasionally found in parks and orchards. It is non-migratory and occurs throughout the state in good numbers year round.
Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus)
The Long-eared Owl, a nocturnal bird about the size of a crow, has a 36 to 42 inch wingspan. Long feather tufts set close together on the head and bright yellow eyes are distinguishing features. This owl lives in deep woodlands, preferring dense groves of conifers. Although it does breed in isolated locations in New Jersey, it is best known as a winter visitor, when several owls can often be found roosting In the same evergreen tree. Rodents, mainly meadow voles, mice and shrews, are its major food. It is a hoot owl with a soft, deep, “Hoo-ooo” call, repeated several times. The Long-eared Owl is threatened in the state of NJ due to loss of habitat.
Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
The Saw-Whet Owl is New Jersey’s smallest bird of prey. Only 7 to 8 inches tall with a wingspan of 18 to 21 inches, this mini-owl weighs a mere 4 ounces. That’s about the size of a “quarter-pounder.” It has a wide rounded head with no feather tufts, and bright yellow eyes. Saw-Whets are seldom observed because of their small size, their nocturnal habits, and the dense, deep woods in which they live. When discovered, however, they are amazingly tame and easily approached. These owls seldom breed in New Jersey. They are regular winter visitors here, but their numbers vary greatly from year to year. This may indicate a southward movement of many birds during years when their prey species are scarce in their northern range.
Screech Owl (Otus asio)
The Screech Owl is New Jersey’s most common breeding owl and is a permanent, year round resident. Preferring open woodland terrain, it lives in rural suburbs, farming districts, city parks and apple orchards. It is small, 7 to 10 inches tall with a wingspan of 18 to 24 inches, and occurs in two color phases, or morphs: gray and red. It has prominent, wide-set feather tufts and bright yellow eyes. Its name is misleading as a description of its voice. Rather than a screech, its call is a plaintive, mellow trill, descending in tone, said to resemble the whinny of a horse. The Screech Owl eats a wide variety of prey including small rodents, amphibians and fish. In summer, large quantities of insects are consumed.
Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
The Short-eared Owl was once a frequent nester in the marshes and meadowlands of New Jersey, but draining and development of these wetlands have greatly reduced the habitat for these birds, and recent breeding records have put this owl on the NJ Endangered species list. However, it is still a fairly common winter resident. This owl lives in open fields, marshes and meadows, and nests on the ground, well hidden in the reeds and grasses. It is often seen on the wing in daylight, flying low to the ground in a zig-zagging moth-like manner. Many times it can be found at airports, where runways and surrounding open areas suit its lifestyle. Medium sized, 13 to 17 inches tall with a wingspan of 39 to 44 inches, the Short-eared Owl has a rounded head with small inconspicuous feather tufts, and bright yellow eyes. It feeds primarily on rodents, specifically field mice.
Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca)
The Snowy Owl is one of the most beautiful of all birds of prey. It is a large bird, 21 to 28 inches tall, and has a wingspan of 50 to 65 inches. When perched, the bird has a smooth, heavy appearance. Its head is rounded and lacks feather tufts. It has bright yellow eyes, a black beak, and thickly feathered legs and feet. Male and female Snowys can be told apart, something which is not always possible in other species. The female is larger than the male, as in all owls, but the recognizable difference is that the adult male is almost pure white, while the female has dark, heavy flecking. The Snowy Owl is a bird of the Canadian tundra, but can occasionally be found in New Jersey during the winter. It prefers open country such as fields, pastures, coastal beaches and airports. These winter visits to our state depend on the availability of food in its Arctic home, not on the severe weather there, which the bird is well equipped to endure. Periodically, in cycles of from four to eight years, the populations of the Snowy’s usual northern prey species, the lemming, increase. This leads to an increase in the number of young snowy owls during breeding seasons. Typically it is the younger birds that then head south in search of territory that is not already occupied by adult birds, and we are afforded a chance to see one of nature’s masterpieces.