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Backyard Files: who?

By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Editor

Before I start, I'm going to have to apologize in advance for the amount of onomatopoeia in this story. Typically, I'm not one who relishes rendering (or reading) abstract sounds in print, but really, there's no other option here. How else is one to describe differences in hooting?

If my half-hearted attempt at a humorous title didn't clue you into my subject this week, that last line surely will. It's darker earlier. The ubiquitous summer night sound-bed of frogs, crickets and cicadas subsided long ago, replaced by autumn and winter’s trademark silence. It's the perfect time to focus our attention on New England's owls.

Chances are, you already know most of the owl basics. They're nocturnal birds of prey, and have a set of adaptations that effectively make them the avian equivalents of a spec-ops soldiers in full night-vision gear. They possess specialized binocular vision that gives them excellent depth perception and (crucially) the ability to see in extremely low light. As their eyes are oversized, owls are largely unable to move them; instead, they have developed the ability to turn their necks a full 270 degrees, giving them the ability to survey their surroundings despite the stationary peepers. They have fantastic hearing that enables them to locate prey - for example, a mouse in a pile of leaves - at great distance. Perhaps most impressively, once they locate said prey, owls descend upon it in almost total silence; their feathers have evolved to produce almost no sound at all during flight.

The challenge, of course, is that unlike most of the area's wildlife, which can usually be seen out a back window (if you're patient and disciplined enough, at least), owls aren't exactly known for showing themselves. All of their marvelous adaptations, combined with their being creatures of the night, make them rather difficult to pin down. As such, "spotting" owls is a bit of a misnomer; one doesn't usually go looking for them, but rather listening for them in the night.

There are a number of owl species in New England, but there are four that you're most likely to hear.

If you're in a particularly rural area, especially one in which abandoned structures can be found, there's a good shot you've heard the mellifluous call of the barn owl. There's also a good shot, if you've heard it, that you would take issue with my suggesting it's pleasant to hear. The barn owl's call is a shrill, shrieking "EEEEEK" - the sort of thing that might send one running in the opposite direction if heard in the pitch black. These birds are so named because of their preference to frequent open, abandoned buildings - barns are the most typical - in their search for shelter and prey. If you're lucky enough to see one in daylight, you'll likely recognize it. The photogenic barn owl is white and brown with a flat, disc-shaped face - as such, it often graces the pages of nature magazines. I assure you: it's far nicer to see one than it is to hear one.

If judging by sound and name alone, one might be inclined to suggest the barn owl's call is actually that of an Eastern screech owl, another of New England's residents. This, though, isn't anything close to the truth. The screech owl's call is in fact more reminiscent of a dove's than the shriek of a banshee. A soft, whinnied "WOO-hoo-hoo-hoo," descending in pitch, is a sure sign that you have an Eastern screech owl around. At only 6-10 inches in length, they are second only to the similarly-sized saw-whet owl (7-8 inches) as most diminutive species in Massachusetts. Should you be lucky enough to see one, you'll find it big-eyed, well camouflaged (typically the color of tree bark) and thoroughly adorable - in some ways, it appears to be a miniature, Disney version of the far more robust, serious-looking great horned owl.

There's no mistaking the great horned's call with that of a screech owl, however. North America's largest owl possesses a rather deep, stately call of "hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo." Due to the size of the birds (18-25 inches), the calls can be heard over longer distances, and often in conversation with one another. The great horned is so named because of two upright tufts of feathers, one on either side of its temple, which are reminiscent of horns. Its size, combined with its skill as a hunter, mean that the great horned owl can take on most prey species in a New England forest, the exception being larger mammals. It's been reported that they have over 500 prey species, including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects, but the bulk of their diet is made up of smaller mammals - mice, voles, and shrews. Given the great horned's ubiquity, size and seeming delight in breaking the nighttime silence with its sonorous voice, there's a good shot that listening carefully at dusk will yield at least one instance of this raptor's call.

A final singer whose voice often breaks the nighttime silence is the barred owl, whose call is typically described as sounding like a hooted "who cooks for two, who cooks for all" (I spared you the abstract onomatopoeia on this one - you're welcome). They are perhaps the most common owl species in New England, and their vocalizations can be heard at great distance - over half a mile, in some cases. Barred owls prefer old-growth forests, which are filled with the sort of hollowed out trees that make for ideal nesting sites. Though they can approach the size of the great horned, barred owls are still noticeably smaller, with a maximum length around 20 inches. Like all owls, it is an expert at pest control, and thus a fantastic neighbor; it eats at least three rodents every night.

The great fun of listening for owls is that doing so turns us all into one of them. We sit in the dark, listening carefully and cocking our heads in all manner of odd directions. We make a guessing game out of what we hear: how far away is it? How big? Who? We attune our senses to this darkened world, hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse (or more appropriately, hear a fleeting sound) of our "quarry." It's a wonderfully peaceful, relaxing activity.

But if curiosity kills the cat and you can't help yourself from seeking a glimpse of one of these critters in the wild? Well, you do have options.

Sometimes, you've got to be proactive. The various green spaces administered by the Trustees of Reservations and Audubon Society sometimes host nighttime walks throughout the year. With a little good fortune, their expert guides might lead you to an owl hunting in its natural habitat. You can seek these programs at either or; they're always eminently engaging and worthwhile.

Sometimes, it's a matter of luck. I've heard stories of individuals who've been fortunate enough to host an owl's nest in a tree on their property, and have enjoyed watching their guests throughout a full season or two. Those of us who aren't gifted with owl-friendly trees in their yards might consider increasing that luck by installing an owl box as a potential nearby lodging site.

Failing all that, though? If you're out on your own, you could do worse than to seek out owl pellets - regurgitated balls of hair, bone and other indigestible parts of prey - on the forest floor. A profusion of these pellets in one place, like the base of a tree, might suggest an owl inhabiting that tree, or at very least favoring it as a perch. Visit that perch in daylight hours, carefully scan the tree, and you just might find yourself face to face with an owl.

However you seek your own encounter - be it auditory, visual, or some combination of the two - you can rest assured it'll be worth your while. As is the case with most things so keen on keeping themselves hidden, it's always a pleasure to find them.

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