By Jim White: Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity
The Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas has just started its fifth and last year. While it is far too early in the year for most birds to be nesting, it is in fact a great time to look for nesting owls. There are four species of owls that regularly nest in Delaware: Great Horned, Eastern Screech, Barred, and Barn Owls. The former three are nesting now and the latter will be nesting soon. Jean Woods, Curator of Birds at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, is collecting data on nesting owls for the atlas project and is encouraging all birders to keep an ear out for calling owls and report any that are heard. In fact, she is challenging us to go out and actively look and listen for owls. This may sound a bit of a difficult, if not crazy task; however, it can be quite enjoyable and not that hard.
Owls can be spotted during daylight hours; however, surveying for owls is best done on a quiet, windless night. Dusk can be a particularly good time to hear owls but owls can also be heard later in the night. For logistical, safety, and enjoyment reasons, owling is best done with a companion.
Great Horned and Eastern Screech-owls are relatively common in our area and can be found in most woods. Barred Owls typically are found in or near swamps, wet woodlands, or floodplains, while Barn Owls are birds of open areas such as freshwater marshes, saltmarshes and agricultural fields. Stopping safely along roads that pass through these habitats and listening for the owl’s distinctive calls can produce good results. Of course you have to know the calls of each species but don’t worry: learning them is not that hard. Owls have more than one type of call: fright calls, begging calls, aggressive calls, and the most commonly recognized advertisement call. The advertisement call, as you might expect, is usually the loudest call and is used to attract a mate or declare territory. The Great Horned Owl’s advertisement call is a classic hoo – h’HOO – hoo – hoo. The Eastern Screech-owl’s is a eerie high trill. The Barred Owl’s well known “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all“ is hard to confuse. The Barn Owl has the least musical call of the four and is a high-pitched hissing scream. Owl calls can be heard at several websites, including Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds.
You can report any sighting or hearing of owls to Jean Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click this link for more information about the Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas. To find out what breeding bird atlas blocks still need owl breeding records, click here.
So get out there, have some fun and collect some valuable data on Delaware’s breeding owls. If you would like to join me on a day-long owling adventure, register for the Delaware Nature Society program Owls at Other Winter Raptors which takes place Sunday, February 12. On this field trip, we try to find the owls mentioned in this story plus wintering Northern Saw-whet Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl, and if we are really lucky…Snowy Owl.