Some common owls in southwestern Ohio are the Barred Owl, the Barn Owl, the Great Horned Owl, and the Screech Owl, and if you’re lucky, and know what to look for, you may have the rare and wonderful experience of seeing one of these mysterious creatures in the wild. Like any good mystery, the secret to solving it is in the clues, and in the case of discovering owls, you’ll find clues when you know where to look, what to listen for, and how to identify physical evidence.
The Barred Owl
Barred Owls are large, stocky owls with rounded heads, no ear tufts, and medium length, rounded tails. They are brownish and white overall, with dark brown, almost black, eyes, and are named for the markings on their wings and tail, which are barred brown and white. Standing 14-25 inches high, with wingspans of 38-49 inches, they weigh from 1.1 to 2.3 pounds
It’s easiest to find a Barred Owl at night when they are most active, and are often easier to hear than to see. They mainly live in forests near water. Listen for their distinctive call which sounds like a bark of, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” At a great distance, this can sound like the bark of a large dog.
They often fly noiselessly through dense woods or snooze on a tree limb. During the day, on a quiet walk through the woods, you might find a Barred Owl nesting in a tree cavity. They hunt small animals and rodents, and can occasionally be heard calling in daylight hours.
Great Horned Owls
With their long, ear-like tufts, large yellow eyes, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. They are a powerful predator who can take down birds and mammals larger than themselves, but also eat tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. With a wingspan of 36-60 inches, they are 17-25 inches long, weigh 1.3 to 5.7 pounds, and are grey-brown with reddish faces, and have wings that are broad and rounded. They are one of the most common owls in North America, and can be found in everything from woods, to evergreen forests, swamps, deserts, tundra edges, as well as cities, orchards, suburbs, and parks.
The call of the Great Horned Owl is also the typical sound one would expect from a storybook owl. They give voice to deep, soft hoots with a stuttering rhythm, sounding like, “hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo.” This is not to be mistaken for the call of a Mourning Dove, which people often incorrectly identify as the hoots of an owl.
Great Horned Owls are nocturnal, so your best bet at seeing one is at dusk sitting on fence posts or tree limbs at the edges of open areas, or flying across roads or fields with their large rounded wings slowly flapping.
The Screech Owl
If a mysterious high-pitched whinny catches your attention in the night, it may be coming from a Screech Owl that is no bigger than a pint glass. They are a short, stocky bird, generally 7-10 inches tall with a wingspan of 18-24 inches. Small and agile, Screech Owls are mostly gray, or can be reddish-brown, with a pattern of complex bands and spots that cause them to blend completely into tree bark.
They are commonly found in woods in suburbs and parks, or wherever trees are found, particularly near water, and are willing to nest in backyard nest boxes, and will visit birdbaths to drink and bathe. Their camouflage markings make it possible for them to hide out in nooks and tree cavities through the day, so train your ears and listen for them at night, when they’re easier to identify.
When looking for a Screech Owl, listen for a shrill then descending whinny, sounding similar to a high-pitched horse whinny. The call is used by families to keep in touch, or mated pairs singing to each other both day and night.
Because of their camouflage markings, you never know when you might pass one resting silently in a tree cavity. Look closely to see if there’s the slighted bit of movement on a tree trunk the next time you’re in the woods, and you just might see a small owl magically emerging from the bark.
Ghostly pale and strictly nocturnal, Barn Owls are silent predators of the night world, and are often known by many other names, such as Demon Owl, Ghost Owl, Night Owl, or Hissing Owl. They are medium sized, 9.8 – 20 inches long, with a wingspan of 30-43 inches, weighing 6.6 to 28 ounces. With a whitish face, chest, and belly, this owl roosts in hidden, quiet places during the day, and hunts in open fields and meadows at night. Although rare in some parts of the country now because of a loss of habitat, they can still be found occasionally in remote areas.
You can find them by listening for their eerie calls, sounding like a long harsh scream that lasts about two seconds. The calls are made mostly by the male, who often call repeatedly, while females give the call less often. They also make a loud, 3-4 second hiss at intruders or predators who disturb the nest.
Many people’s first sighting of a Barn Owl is while driving through open country at night, and they see a flash of pale wings in the headlights. They often live up to their name, inhabiting barns and other old, abandoned buildings, so keep an eye out there too.
Other Clues to Finding Owls
Now that you know what various kinds of owls look like, where and when to spot them, and what their calls sound like. Check tree cavities, barns, and abandoned buildings for nests, and here are other ways to tell if an owl is close by:
A big clue that an owl or hawk is near is the sound and sight of a group of excited songbirds, like Blue Jays, Chickadees, or Titmice, as they swoop around it, alerting other birds to the predator’s presence, and teaching young members of their flock about the danger.
Many owls regurgitate the bones, fur, and feathers of their prey in a grey or brown oval fuzzy pellet, usually once or twice a day. The Barn Owl even makes nests with their own shredded pellets. The ground beneath owl roosts can be littered with pellets, so they make a great clue to find when looking for owls.
Sadly, finding a small dead owl on the ground can also be a sign that an owl roost is nearby. Owls, hawks, and herons are known to fight fiercely among themselves for food, and sometimes kill their smallest sibling.
So there you have some great clues to finding owls. If you’re unsure what the calls sound like, pick up a “Birdsong Identiflyer.” study the calls, or take it with you on your search for owls and other birds. They are battery operated and can easily be carried in a pocket or pouch, and be loaded with the bird calls of your choice simply buy purchasing one of many bird song cards.
If you aren’t fortunate enough to find an owl, and look into those marvelous, magical eyes, it’s comforting to know that, like the eyes of Mother Nature, they are there, strong and silent watching over you.
References: “All About Birds,” Cornell Laboratory of Ornthology website. Wikipedia.org. Interview with Cindy Calverson, director of Raptor, Inc.