Owls may not be the most obvious bird in the area, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there. In fact, did you know that there are 8 of these elusive predatory species that live in Pennsylvania and a couple of them are known to roost on our property here at BCAS!
Every January, we host an Owl Prowl and Night Hike which teaches participants about the fascinating creatures. We go out on a hike and then press the “Play” button on our owl call recording. In January, owls are starting to get ready to nest and breed. Males become territorial and want to chase away any competitors. By playing an owl call recording, we simulate a potential competitor and an owl might fly in to chase us away! When they realize that we are most certainly not an owl, they fly back to their roost, giving participants a great opportunity to see an owl in the wild; something that not everyone gets the chance to do!
We can tell what types of owls are around by taking notice of a few traits. We listen to the call and look at the size and coloration of the bird. Here’s a basic description of the eight owls that you might see or hear in Pennsylvania!
Great-Horned: These are relatively large owls that can have a wingspan of up to 5 feet! They are brown in color with flecks of dark brown and black. These owls have iconic ear “tufts”. These feathers aren’t actually the owl’s ears, but only give the appearance of them. These tufts are dark in color and the coloration comes down to right above their eyes, giving them a look of perpetual seriousness or scowling. They are also some of the most aggressive owls of PA as well! They are yellow-eyed, which is one of the ways that you can tell them apart from the European Eagle owl (who has vivid orange eyes).
Screech: These tinier owls have a wingspan of about 16-20 inches. This is roughly the size of both of your hands touching at the wrist! These little owls may have tiny ear tufts as well. Identifying them by color may sound confusing as these owls are dichromatic. This means that they can be different colors, while still being the same species. You may see either red or grey ones, but no matter the color, they always have a lot of bands and spots that help them to blend in with trees.
Barn: These owls are slightly smaller than the Great-Horned, but not by much. Their wingspan can be up to 44 inches and can stand at roughly 1 ½ ft. tall. One of the most recognizable features of a Barn Owl is their heart shaped face. Except for their brown wings their body is light ivory colored.
Barred: These owls are still moderately large owls, but are slightly smaller than a Barn owl as their wingspan typically doesn’t reach more than 40 inches in length. They are brown and white striped. One of their most identifying traits is that their eyes are dark brown while the other PA owls have bright yellow eyes.
Saw-Whet: These itty-bitty owls have a wingspan of a mere 15-17 inches! They only stand at 6-7 inches tall (imagine and owl a little bigger than your favorite coffee mug). These owls are easily identifiable by their small brown and white body with large, round eyes. These are the owls that are featured on the PA “Conserve Wild Resources” license plate.
Short-Eared: These owls are listed as a Migratory Bird of Conservation Concern due to habitat destruction, specifically in PA, and low breeding population. Even though it is not listed as “Endangered” at the federal level, it is at the state level. This owl is a Wintering bird in PA. If you see an owl during the morning and day, it’s most likely a Short-Eared as they are diurnal instead of nocturnal! As their name suggests, they have small ear tufts, however sometimes the tufts are so small that binoculars are needed to see them!
Long-Eared: These owls are highly nocturnal and only live in dense forests in PA, therefore they can be hard to find. Similar to the Short-Eared Owl, they are a “High Level Concern” owl species to the state of Pennsylvania due to habitat loss. Fortunately, thanks to volunteer data collectors, several suitable winter roosting habitats in Bucks County are now protected! These owls look similar to Great Horned Owls, as their ear tufts are remarkably large; however, Long-Eared Owls have thinner faces than the Great-Horned. The ear tufts on the Long-Eared tend to stick straight up and down, while the Great-Horned Owl’s tufts tend to spread out more.
Snowy: While these owls weren’t always a common sight in PA, they have irrupted here in the past two years. These white owls are frequently seen during the day since their typical arctic habitat has little difference in light between day and night during the winter. This past irruption was caused by a very successful nesting season in the arctic and not from climate change as was speculated by some. While these owls, and other arctic animals, are at early risk for Climate Change impact, these owls are a happy bunch right now! In fact, the owls that had been caught and banded by scientists were unusually fat and healthy – a good sign!
For more information about owls in your area, check out these helpful links below!