Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nature Guide: Owls

New Jersey is home to several different species of owls. Some are here in winter, but others are year-round residents. Our Nature Guide Jon Latimer tells us about three owls we can find in the area around Princeton Landing.

"Owls are nighttime predators that are easiest to see at dusk or dawn. They fly silently, hunting rodents, rabbits or insects. Sometimes the only sign that they are around is the sound of their call in the darkness. Or, you may locate an owl during daylight by the noise of other birds "mobbing" it in its roost.

"Owl have big heads, short necks and large eyes. Their eyes are fixed in their sockets, so an owl must turn its head to shift its gaze. They have big feet with powerful talons used to catch prey. Females are larger than males.

"The Great Horned Owl is the largest owl in our area. An adult can be up to 25 inches long and have a wingspan of up to 5 feet. They vary in color from reddish brown to gray. Their underside is light gray with dark bars and they have a "bib" of white feathers on the upper breast. Their name comes from the two tufts of feathers on their head that look like "horns." These are sometimes referred to as "ear tufts," but they have nothing to do with hearing. They are just feathers.

"A Great Horned Owl is an excellent hunter. Its large yellow-orange eyes are adapted to dim light and the leading edges of its feathers are serrated, allowing its flight to be practically silent. It usually becomes active at dusk but sometimes can be seen in late afternoon or early morning. In the daytime it is sometimes harassed by crows or jays. Its deep hoots usually follow a pattern of hoo, hoo-hoo . . . hoo . . . hooh.

"The smaller Barn Owl is a pale color overall and has an unusual heart-shaped face with dark eyes, long legs and a short, squared-off tail. Adults reach up to 14 inches long and have a wingspan of up to 44 inches. Barn Owls hunt at night, flying slowly along the edges of woods or above open ground. They feed primarily on small rodents and katydids or crickets. Barn Owls nest inside barns, abandoned buildings, caves and dense trees. When approached, they have a peculiar habit of lowering their head and swaying back and forth. Instead of hooting, Barn Owls make a rising wheezy cry, metallic clicks or a raspy hiss.

"The smallest owl in our area, the Eastern Screech-Owl, is fairly common but often overlooked. Smaller than a robin, an adult screech-owl is only 8 inches long and has a wingspan of up to 22 inches. They live in areas with large trees, such as suburbs and parks. In fact, a screech-owl has been seen occasionally in the trees around The Smith House. Screech-owls are either rusty or dark gray, with streaks on their breast. They become active around dusk, hunting rodents and insects. During the day they roost in cavities in trees or on a branch near the trunk. Their quavering call sounds like a horse's "whinny."

Photo by Patrick Coin