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Winter is for the Owls

Winter is the best time to look and listen for owls! Our year round resident owls include the Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl and the Eastern Screech Owl. Barn owls, rare permanent residents in our area, are on the endangered species list in Illinois.

Starting in late fall and early winter you may hear the low “hoo hoo hoo-hoo-hoo” call of the Great Horned Owl.  Our largest owl, males and females mate for life. They begin hooting in October, have mated by December and are laying eggs in January. Cornell Lab of Ornithology claims that the male owl has a larger voice box and a deeper sounding call, but some long time birders will tell you that the female has the deeper hoot. Regardless of whose hoot is deeper, it’s awesome to hear them dueting together. The dueting strengthens their bonds to each other and the process of raising their young.

The Barred Owl, a stockier owl, prefers habitat of mixed forests with large trees, often near water. Their call, “hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo; hoo, hoo, hoo, hooo-aw “ sounds like someone is saying, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all”?

Eastern Screech Owls, small owls that resemble the larger Great Horned Owl in profile, like forested areas of any kind. They prefer to shelter  and nest in tree cavities but have also been found roosting in thick shrubs.  The call of this owl sounds more like the whinny of a horse.

Barn Owls, which were common in our area until the 1960s, prefer open grasslands, wood lots and agricultural fields. Their call is a very loud hiss.

All of our resident owls stay put year round once they find suitable habitat.  Although these owls are hard to spot day or night, the trick to finding them is to listen for their calls or the calls of other birds. During the day the chaotic calls of smaller birds like Blue Jays or Chickadees may signal that an owl is nearby. These birds “mob” owls and other raptors by swooping around them and calling noisily.

Starting in November, you can also begin looking and listening for our wintertime owl visitors. Short-eared Owls, Saw-Whet Owls, Long-eared Owls, and Snowy Owls may take up winter residence with each species preferring a specific habitat.  If you visit the right habitat, you increase your chances of spotting them. Their calls are may be listed here but since they aren’t breeding now they may not be very vocal.

Short-eared Owls typically prefer large open areas such as marsh, wetlands, prairies or fields. They tend to roost on the ground and can also be found in winter months in farm fields or grassy airport fields. Occasionally they roost in stands of conifers adjacent to wide open prairie and farm fields.  In past winters one of our naturalists spotted a short-eared owl flying over grasses in Springbrook Prairie. The best time to start checking is just before dusk. One of their calls sounds like a scratchy bark!

The Northern Saw-whet owl, our little owl visitors from the north, most often roost in stands of conifers. They typically use conifer trees and shrubs less than 12 feet tall, but there are times that they will roost in taller trees as well.  Their roost most often will be adjacent to or near open areas or open woodland.  I have seen Saw Whet Owls at eye level in a Japanese Yew and higher up in a White Pine. Check conifers during the daylight when the owl is resting. Their mechanical repetitive call sounds like “too-too-too”.

Snowy Owls, a long distance migrant from the tundra, often roost in wide open expanses of land that resemble their summer home. Typically they can be seen on the ground in large tracks of farm fields. Snowy owls have also been seen roosting on silos, farm buildings, fence posts or light posts that overlook the wide open spaces.  Just to confuse us Snowy Owls have been reported at airports and by the lakefront sitting on the ice, in the harbor or on the dunes.  Daytime is a great time to look for them. Snowy Owls are usually fairly quiet although they sometimes make a high pitch whistle and a croaking sound.

Long-eared Owls, a shy and skittish migrant, are great masters of disguise. They blend in with the conifers and cedars they sit in. Birders watching them in the winter months noticed they keep their bodies as close as possible to the tree trunk. And they shift their bodies around to blend in.  They roost close to open fields and prairie-like habitat, as well as farm fields. Because of their camouflage techniques, they are difficult to spot. Long-eared Owls have a variety of calls – hoots, whistles, whines, shrieks, and cat-like meows.

Don’t be discouraged if you head out to your local park or forest preserve and hear or see nothing. It happens all the time, even to the most dedicated birders. One or our naturalists checked one area, that she knew had to be prime owl habitat, five times before she saw a barred owl.  Chances are if they have suitable habitat and food, the owls will stay all winter and your chances to see them will increase.  So bundle up and get outside, and good luck!

For more information about owls visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, www.allaboutbirds.org