A single note woke me from my sleep. Barred owl!
While these primarily nocturnal birds can be hard to see, their calls, often described as, “Who cooks for you,” are unmistakable.
Virginia has four species of owls that regularly nest here: the barred, great horned, barn and eastern screech-owl.
The short-eared and northern saw-whet owls, common winter residents, have also been known to breed here.
Both the barn owl and the northern saw-whet are on the species of special concern list due to loss of habitat.
Owls are supremely adapted as nocturnal raptors. Their exceptionally large eyes maximize their ability to see in dim light.
The comb-like leading edge of their primary wing feathers allow for virtually silent flight. Many species have facial discs that help capture sound and off-center ear openings that allow them to triangulate the location of prey.
Owls are important predators, with rodents making up much of their diet.
The barred owl has a wingspan of 39 to 43 inches and is a resident of woodlands, swamps, dense forests and lakeshores. It nests in cavities in trees, but will use old nests of red-shouldered hawks, crows or ravens.
The tiny screech owl is only six to 10 inches high with a 19- to 24-inch wingspan. It prefers open woodlands, forest clearings, old orchards and suburban parklands. It nests in the cavities of old trees.
This owl comes in red or grey phase plumages and sports ear tufts, and its call sounds like a horse’s whinny.
The largest of our owls, the great horned, is found throughout North America. It can reach 25 inches in height with wingspans of 40 to 57 inches and has long tufts that resemble ears.
This highly adaptable owl can be found in deep forests, desert cliffs, woodlots or suburban landscapes and parks.
Great horned owls are one of the few predators of skunks. At five and a half pounds, it is the heaviest and most powerful American owl, and if sufficiently provoked, will attack anything in its way.
These owls nest in old nests of hawks, herons, eagles or crows, ledges on cliffs and large cavities in trees. Their call is a series of soft, deep hoots.
The increasingly rare barn owl is a slender, long-legged owl with a distinctive white, heart-shaped face. It has a wingspan of 39 to 49 inches and prefers open country such as farms, savannas and grassland and primarily eats rats and mice.
As its name implies, the barn owl nests in barns, silos, church steeples, unused buildings and nesting boxes. Its calls are varied, including shrill hisses, abrasive shrieks and rattles.
Barn owls are in the family tytonidea, while all other owls are in the strigidae family. There are several key differences between barns and other owls, including their very short lifespan (three to four years in the wild versus seven to nine for a similar-sized true owl) and the great number of eggs they lay each year (six to 30 eggs versus two to three for similar true owls).
Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at email@example.com.