Exploring whoooo’s who among state’s several species


There you are, wandering through the woods at night (why you’re there is another story), when suddenly you hear the soft rustling of wings.

A dark shadow crosses your path. Then you hear the cry, “Who cooks for you … who cooks for you all.” You have just encountered one of the night flyers, a barred owl.

Indiana has eight species of owls: Eastern screech owl, great horned owl, barred owl, snowy owl, burrowing owl, long-eared owl, short-eared owl and the Northern saw-whet owl. The first three are those owls that are common year round.

The great horned owl is the dominant predator of the three. It is a large bird, standing about 24 inches with a wingspan of 57 inches, a thick body and two prominent feathered tufts on the head. Its color is a mottled gray-brown to a reddish brown with a white patch on the throat.

These owls can clench their talons so tightly that a force of 28 pounds is needed to open them. Not only do they hunt what the other owls hunt but also ospreys, peregrine falcons, crows and barred owls.

They hunt in open areas and nest in large trees, taking over nests abandoned by hawks, crows and herons. Where the woods and fields meet is where they are most common, sitting on a fence post or flying across fields.

They breed in January and February, adding to the nest from time to time then laying one to four dull white eggs. Incubation lasts 30 to 37 days, while nesting lasts about 42 days.

The barred owl is more common in the interior of forests (mostly to stay away from the horned owl). This is a large stocky bird, standing about 19 inches with a wingspan of about 43 inches and a mottled brown and white color. It prefers mature forests in which to live, using cavities 20 to 40 feet high.

These owls lay their eggs in deep winter, laying one to five pure white eggs, producing one brood a year. Their incubation period is 28 to 33 days with 28 to 35 nesting days. Young barred owls can climb trees by grasping the bark with their bills, flapping their wings and walking up the trunk.

We had one at Thornwood in an old dead tree; unfortunately, this tree blew down last winter.

The Eastern screech owl is the smallest owl we have — about the size of a pint glass. This owl prefers to nest in tree cavities and will also use human-built nest boxes. It is also the most likely one you can see in your backyard, as it can be found in urban parks and suburban backyards.

The sound it makes is a high-pitched, descending whinny, which if you’re not expecting it can be quite spooky. It goes after small prey such as insects, songbirds and mice.

It will lay two to six white eggs and has an incubation period of 27 to 34 days, with a nesting period of 26 to 30 days.

Let’s talk about a visitor we don’t get all the time, the snowy owl. It shows up on an irregular basis during the winter (there’s been a couple seen and photographed near Shelbyville) in windswept fields. It spends summer far north of the Arctic Circle. These owls hunt lemmings and other prey in 24-hour daylight; during times of growth in the lemming population, they can raise double or triple their number of young.

They are white with different amounts of black or brown markings. They will sit on or near the ground, on fence posts or telephone posts. When they fly, they are close to the ground. These owls fly close to the ground, mostly in agricultural fields and near airports chasing prey. They have also been seen running along the ground after prey. Some snowy owls will remain on the breeding ground all year.

The males tend to get whiter as they age. Harry Potter’s owl in the movie is a male. These birds stand about 28 inches with a wingspan of 57 inches. They will catch rodents, rabbits, squirrels, weasels, duck and geese. They can also catch small birds on the fly.

On a side note, the rarest owl in Indiana is the barn owl. This owl is considered to be endangered in this state. They started shifting from tree cavities to barns with the arrival of early settlers.

With the loss of a lot a barns they have shifted to old churches, silos and abandoned buildings. Further decline is caused by the loss of pastures, as these owls to not hunt in fields that have row crops in them.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department.