Most people only hear owls, but some folks are lucky enough to
catch a glimpse of a large owl swooping across the road after dark.
Most owls in Maryland are secretive and active at dusk and dawn or
Eighteen species of owls can be found in North America, eight of
which occur in Maryland. Barred Owls, Barn Owls, Eastern
Screech-Owls and Great-Horned Owls are commonly found throughout
Maryland. Northern Saw-Whet Owls migrate through the State in late
fall and a few occasionally breed in western Maryland in the summer.
Short-Eared Owls and Long-Eared Owls historically nested in
Maryland, but no breeding birds have been seen in a number of years.
Snowy Owls occasionally migrate through the State and can be seen
along Assateague Island.
Owls are carnivorous and have special adaptations that enable
them to hunt at night. For example, their eyes are large and fixed,
with binocular vision and good depth perception. Because owls are
unable to move their eyes, they have developed an incredibly
flexible neck that allows them to turn their head 270 degrees, from
one side to the other. (Humans can only rotate their heads about 180
degrees.) Their eyes are also extremely light sensitive, allowing
them to see well at night.
Another essential adaptation that allows owls to hunt at night is
their extremely sensitive hearing. It is the owl’s facial disc that
enables it to hear a soft rustling in the grass as the disc acts to
funnel and amplify all sound to their ears. Many owls also have
asymmetrical ears which allow the owl to detect the distance and
direction from which sound is coming more accurately.
Owls also rely on silent flight to surprise their prey. Owl
feathers are long and soft to help muffle sounds while flying. In
addition, the leading edge of their flight feathers is soft and wavy
to eliminate noise while flying. These are all perfect adaptations
for finding and catching prey at night, and explain why owls have
become the most efficient hunters of the night.
Barn Owls are often found in
rural areas near farmland and open countryside. They usually
reside in the lofts of abandoned barns or silos but will
also use nest boxes. Barn Owls have golden-buff markings on
their wings and back, and a white chest that may be mottled
with few black spots. Their heart-shaped face makes them
easy to identify. Barn Owls make a variety of sounds
including a hiss and a rasping screech that has been
mistakenly identified as the terrifying screams of a woman.
They primarily eat meadow voles and other rodents that are
commonly found in farm fields. Barn Owls breed between April
and early May and produce four to six young per year. Barn
Owls are found throughout Maryland at any time of the year
but are considered to be rare to uncommon.
Click here to find out more about
Barn Owls in Maryland
Barred Owls are found along rivers in
low-lying woods. This large owl has no ear tufts and has
dark brown eyes. The Barred Owl can be recognized by the
“barred” feather pattern running horizontally across its
chest and down its belly. Barred Owls have a very
distinctive call that sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who
cooks for you all?” Feeding mainly on meadow voles, they may
prey upon birds, frogs, and crayfish. They seem to be
attracted to campfires and bright lights, where they are
often seen foraging for large insects. Barred Owls nest in
cavities and use abandoned crow, squirrel, and hawk nests.
Barred Owls can be found throughout Maryland at any time of
Click here to check out a
Barred Owl Nest Box Plan
The Eastern Screech-Owl lives in wooded areas
adjacent to open fields and nests in tree cavities or nest
boxes. Adults average around 8 to 9 inches tall and are
found in two color morphs - a gray phase and a reddish-brown
phase. They have two tufts of feathers called “ear tufts,”
which are not actually ears but feathers used to camouflage
themselves within tree foliage. Though their name implies
that they make a screeching sound, their call is more
comparable to the “whinny” of a horse. Eastern Screech-Owls
hunt at night and eat small rodents, flying insects and
small birds. Year-round residents of Maryland, they are
fairly common in suburban areas.
Click here to check out a
Screech Owl Nest Box Plan
The Great-Horned Owl is found in many habitats
but prefers dense woodlots bordering open fields. The
largest of the tufted owls, they have large yellow eyes, a
white throat patch, and are reddish brown, gray, or black
and white in color. They make the familiar “hoo hoo” call
associated with owls. Great-Horned Owls feed on waterfowl,
rabbits, squirrels, marsh birds, rodents, reptiles, and
amphibians. They nest in tree cavities, nest boxes, and
cliff ledges, as well as the old nests of crows, squirrel,
and hawks. Great-Horned Owls live in Maryland year round.
The Long-Eared Owl lives in coniferous forests
and thick woods and hunts in open fields and marshes.
Long-Eared Owls look similar to Great-horned Owls but are
smaller, more slender in shape and tend to have a rustier
facial disc compared to Great-Horned Owls. Long-Eared Owls
make a long “hooooo” call and feed on voles and small mice.
Long-Eared Owls tend to use old American Crow or squirrel
nests as well as occasional tree cavities. Long-Eared Owls
once nested in Maryland but now are only seen as occasional
migrants through the State.
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl lives in low, moist
coniferous or mixed forests, wooded swamps or evergreen
thickets. They are the smallest owls in Maryland and average
only 7 inches as adults. Saw-Whet owls are brown with a
reddish facial disc and underside. They have yellow eyes and
lack “ear tufts.” The sound of their call resembles the
“whetting” or sharpening of a saw. Saw-Whet Owls feed on
small rodents, including deer mice, shrews, and voles, but
may also eat insects. They nest in natural cavities and
those excavated by woodpeckers, but will also accept nest
boxes. Northern Saw-Whet Owls are highly migratory and rarely spend the summer or winter in Maryland.
The Short-Eared Owl lives in fresh and saltwater
marshes, bogs, prairies and grasslands and open woodlands.
Short-Eared Owls are medium-sized owls with rounded wings.
Their facial disc is whitish with dark areas around their
eyes, while the rest of their body is brown to buff with
heavy streaks. Short-Eared Owls have small “ear tufts”.
Short-Eared Owls make a scratchy-barking call and feed
almost exclusively on voles and other small rodents.
Short-Eared Owls nest on the ground in tall grasses but
sometimes they also use nest boxes. Short-Eared Owls are
mainly only seen in Maryland during fall migration, though
they historic records show they once bred in Maryland.
The Snowy Owl lives in open tundras and nests on
the ground. They are large, white owls with dark bars and
spots on their wings, breast and back. Snowy Owls feed
mostly on lemmings but also consume other small rodents and
birds. Snowy Owls typically occur in parts of the northern
United States and Canada but migrate south during the winter
where they can sometimes be seen in Maryland.
If your neighborhood or property has a number of mature or dead trees
or logs, then you may already have nesting Eastern Screech Owls. If you
live in a relatively wooded area near a river, then you may have a
nesting pair of Barred Owls. Rural areas that are wooded may be
inhabited by Great-Horned Owls. During winter, areas with stands of
evergreens are highly preferred as roosting sites for many species of
owls. This is because dense vegetation, like evergreens, provides the
best camouflage from potential predators. The key to attracting owls is
to have their favorite nesting habitat. Neighborhoods with areas of tall
grass or properties that are wooded and/or near a stream or river with
an abundance of ground cover will provide the most food for owls.
If you live in an area with tall grass or near a stream, but without
many mature or dead trees, then you can build nest box structures that
may attract owls. Wooded properties may also attract Great-Horned Owls
if a nesting structure, similar to the ones used in nature, is provided.
Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard!
For Additional Information, Contact:
Wildlife and Heritage Service
580 Taylor Ave, E-1
Annapolis, MD 21401
- Barn Owl by USFWS
- Barred Owl by Mark Goss
- Eastern Screech-Owl by Kerry Wixted
- Great-Horned Owl by Ronald Laubenstein (USFWS)
- Northern Saw-whet Owl by George Jett
- Short-eared Owl by George Jett
- Snowy Owl by Middleton Evans