Massachusetts, known for its diverse terrain, offers an array of habitats perfect for many creatures, including owls. Its large tracts of forest, urban parks, open farmlands, and coastal regions provide ample opportunities to observe these mesmerizing raptors.
This article will explore eight distinct owl species residing in Massachusetts, detailing their characteristics, behavior, and ideal habitats. Additionally, we’ll offer tips on how to spot these elusive nocturnal hunters.
Owl Species Found in Massachusetts
Great Horned Owl
- Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
- Size: 46-63cm (18-24.8 inches)
- Weight: 910-2500g (2-5.5 lbs)
- Wingspan: 101-145cm (39.7-57.1 inches)
- Time of the Year: Year-round
The Great Horned Owl, named for its horn-like ear tufts, is the most common owl species in North America and a frequent sight in Massachusetts. It’s one of the largest owl species, having a robust body, a large head, and broad wings.
Its powerful build allows it to take down prey larger than itself, including other raptors. They have a diverse diet, with the capability to prey on a variety of animals from insects to mammals, even occasionally preying on other raptors.
These formidable predators favor a variety of habitats, including mixed forests, deserts, and grasslands, but they can also adapt to suburban and urban environments. They are mainly nocturnal, most active hunting during the night. However, they can also be seen at dusk or dawn, and their iconic hoot is a familiar sound in the stillness of the night.
Did you know? The Great Horned Owl’s eyes are not true “eyeballs.” Their tube-shaped eyes are completely immobile, providing a binocular vision that fully focuses on their prey and boosts depth perception.
Eastern Screech Owl
- Scientific Name: Megascops asio
- Size: 16-25cm (6.3-9.8 inches)
- Weight: 121-244g (4.3-8.6 oz)
- Wingspan: 46-61cm (18-24 inches)
- Time of Year: Year-round
Eastern Screech Owls are small, yet highly adaptable creatures that can be found throughout Massachusetts all year round. These owls are well-known for their camouflage. Depending on their genetic traits, their plumage can either be a gray morph, perfect for blending into tree bark, or a rufous or red morph, which helps them hide among the leaves.
They inhabit a variety of habitats, including woodlands, parks, and suburban areas. Being cavity nesters, they can often be found in tree cavities or nest boxes. Despite their name, they don’t really screech.
Instead, they have a complex series of hoots, whinnies, and soft trills which resonate in the night. They feed on a variety of prey, including insects, small birds, and rodents, making them a beneficial part of the ecosystem.
Did you know? The Eastern Screech Owl has two color morphs, or forms – rufous (red) and gray. The color of the individual owl is almost completely determined by its parents. The color morph is not related to the owl’s gender, age, or region. This genetic color variation helps the owls to blend in with their surroundings, enhancing their ability to surprise their prey and avoid predators.
- Scientific Name: Strix varia
- Size: 40-63cm (15.7-24.8 inches)
- Weight: 500-1050g (1.1-2.3 lbs)
- Wingspan: 96-125cm (37.8-49.2 inches)
- Time of Year: Year-round
The Barred Owl is a large, stocky owl that can be found in mature forests throughout Massachusetts. Its name comes from the distinctive barred pattern on its chest. Its hooting call, which sounds like it’s saying “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” is a familiar sound in the forests it calls home.
Unlike many other owl species, Barred Owls are relatively sedentary, and do not migrate, preferring to stay in the same area year-round. They are primarily nocturnal, hunting a variety of prey from small mammals to amphibians and invertebrates at night.
These owls are notable for their large, round heads with dark eyes, unlike most other owls which have yellow or orange eyes. Despite their somewhat serene appearance, they are skilled predators that play an important role in their ecosystem.
Did you know? Barred Owls are highly vocal, especially during courtship. During these rituals, pairs will perform a riotous duet of cackles, hoots, caws and gurgles.
- Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
- Size: 53-65cm (20.9-25.6 inches)
- Weight: 1600-2950g (3.5-6.5 lbs)
- Wingspan: 125-150cm (49.2-59.1 inches)
- Time of Year: Winter
The Snowy Owl, a bird of the far north, is a rare but exciting sight in Massachusetts, primarily during the winter months. Its white feathers help it blend in with its snowy surroundings, and they are the heaviest owl species in North America.
In contrast to most owls, Snowy Owls are diurnal, active during the day, especially in the summertime in the Arctic, where they nest. They hunt for lemmings and other small mammals, as well as birds, over tundra or open fields.
Snowy Owls have a highly irregular migration pattern, often linked to the availability of their primary prey, lemmings. In years of lemming population crashes, they can move south in significant numbers in an event known as an “irruption.”
Did you know? The females are larger and darker than the males. While male Snowy Owls are almost entirely white, females have more flecks of black in their plumage.
- Scientific Name: Tyto alba
- Size: 33-40cm (13-16 inches)
- Weight: 440-550g (0.9-1.2 lbs)
- Wingspan: 80-95cm (31.5-37.4 inches)
- Time of Year: Year-round
The Barn Owl, a pale, long-winged, long-legged owl, has a distinctive heart-shaped facial disk. As the name implies, they are often associated with man-made structures and are frequently found in barns and other old, abandoned buildings. They are widespread but not often seen due to their nocturnal habits and preference for rural habitats.
Barn Owls primarily feed on small mammals, especially rodents, making them valuable for pest control. They have a raspy screech, quite unlike the hoots of other owl species.
Unfortunately, the Barn Owl’s population has been on the decline in recent years, due in large part to changes in farming practices and loss of suitable nesting sites.
Did you know? Barn Owls swallow their prey whole—skin, bones, and all, and about twice a day they regurgitate pellets containing the indigestible parts of their meal.
- Scientific Name: Asio otus
- Size: 31-40cm (12-15.7 inches)
- Weight: 200-435g (0.44-0.96 lbs)
- Wingspan: 86-100cm (33.9-39.4 inches)
- Time of Year: Winter
The Long-Eared Owl, a medium-sized owl, is so named for its long ear tufts that are located in the center of the forehead. The ear tufts are used to make the owl appear larger to predators. They are nocturnal and highly elusive, spending the day roosting in dense foliage where they blend in remarkably well.
These owls can be found in the state primarily during the winter. They are one of the most communal birds, and it is not uncommon to find several roosting together in one tree.
Long-Eared Owls primarily feed on small mammals, especially rodents, but will occasionally prey on birds.
Did you know? When a Long-Eared Owl is threatened, it elongates its body to look like a branch or tree trunk, often bringing one wing around to the front of its body to enhance the effect.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
- Size: 18-20 cm (7.1-7.9 inches)
- Weight: 54-151 g (1.9-5.3 ounces)
- Wingspan: 42-56.3 cm (16.5-22.2 inches)
- Time of Year: Year-round, but more common in winter months
Named for a call that reminded early settlers of the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a small owl with a big personality.
They are known for their large, round heads without ear tufts and their oversized yellow eyes. Despite their petite size, they are voracious predators, feeding on a diet of small mammals, especially rodents.
These tiny owls inhabit dense forests and are particularly partial to heavy cover for roosting during the day. They’re easier to hear than to see, especially as they are mainly active at night, emitting a high-pitched too-too-too call.
Did you know? Despite their small size, Northern Saw-Whet Owls can catch prey larger than themselves. They often eat part of a large catch and save the rest for later.
- Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
- Size: 34-42 cm (13-16.5 inches)
- Weight: 206-475 g (7.3-16.8 ounces)
- Wingspan: 85-110 cm (33.5-43.3 inches)
- Time of Year: Year-round
The Short-Eared Owl is a medium-sized owl with a round head and short ear tufts that are often hard to see. They have a large geographic range, but their population tends to fluctuate greatly, often in sync with the population cycles of voles, their primary prey.
Unlike many other owl species, Short-Eared Owls are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk. They are known for their distinctive wing-clapping display during the breeding season, a behavior not seen in many other owl species.
Their preferred habitats are open fields and marshes, where they are sometimes seen flying low in search of prey, even during the day.
Did you know? The Short-Eared Owl is one of the most widely distributed owls, found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica.
Where & How to Observe Owls in Massachusetts
Massachusetts offers several great locations to spot these fascinating nocturnal birds. Here are some of the best spots:
- The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island is a habitat for a variety of bird species, including several of the owl species we’ve discussed.
- Quabbin Reservoir in Belchertown is an excellent spot to see Barred Owls and occasionally Great Horned Owls.
- Blue Hills Reservation in Milton is known for its Great Horned Owls.
- Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge in Sudbury has been known to host Eastern Screech Owls and Barred Owls.
- Wompatuck State Park in Hingham is another spot where you may find several owl species.
You’ll find owls in a range of habitats, from dense forests to open meadows and marshes. They can even be found in urban areas and residential neighborhoods, particularly where there are mature trees.
While the Great Horned Owl is comfortable in a variety of habitats, the Eastern Screech Owl tends to prefer woodlands and forests near water sources. Barred Owls are found in large, mature forests, often near water, while Barn Owls prefer open country and fields.
Quick Tips For Owl Spotting
- Patience is key. Owl spotting requires quiet, patience, and a bit of luck.
- Look at the right time. Owls are most active during the night, so your best chance of spotting them is around dusk or dawn.
- Listen for their calls. Each owl species has a distinctive call. Familiarize yourself with their sounds to help locate them.
- Look for signs. Keep an eye out for owl pellets at the base of trees, which can indicate an owl’s presence.
- Respect the owls. Remember not to disturb the owls or their habitats. Use binoculars or a telescope to observe from a distance.
Remember, while it’s exciting to spot these incredible creatures, it’s also essential to respect their space and not disturb them, particularly during nesting season.
Enjoy the thrill of spotting and identifying different owl species, and make the most of the diverse birding opportunities that Massachusetts has to offer!
Owls in Other States
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia