Owls of Pennsylvania

Young Eastern screech owls. /iStock

We are lucky to have so many trees and wooded spaces in our community. On any given day, we can see and hear so many birds that find refuge in the trees, including chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and hawks. Twilight and dusk bring about a brand-new set of residents, including elusive owls. You may not always see them, but you can definitely hear their calls in the evening hours.

According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, eight species of owls either nest in or regularly visit Pennsylvania in wintertime. During the day, these birds hide in plain sight, most often in trees where they are camouflaged. As darkness sets in, these majestic birds come to life. 

Owls are nocturnal birds of prey, whose extraordinary hearing and sharp eyesight allow them to hunt in near darkness. These hunting machines have dagger-like talons and near-silent flight. Asymmetrically pointed ears allow owls to triangulate sound and pinpoint the exact location of their prey. In winter, their hearing is so good, they can find small mice and voles traveling under the snow, and swoop in for the kill. Their diet is varied, from juicy insects to small mammals, birds and even the occasional frog. Most importantly, they keep rodents in check. 

Owls in North America are among the earliest nesting birds, often mating and finding nests while the snow is still on the ground. Unlike other birds, they do not build nests, but prefer to occupy cavities, or large holes, in trees, or take over nests abandoned by other large birds, such as crows. Female owls incubate the eggs, and once the chicks hatch, both parents hunt to feed their hungry family. By the time the young are ready to fledge, or leave the nest, the woods should be filled with young animals that can provide an easy meal for an inexperienced hunter.  

One of my favorite nighttime sounds is the whinnying call of the Eastern Screech Owl, a small stocky owl with gray or reddish streaked plumage that allows it to blend in perfectly with its surroundings. These small birds need trees with cavities to build their nests, and are content to nest in patches of woods too small for larger owls and may even occupy nest boxes placed for them. Leaving trees with cavities standing can help these little birds stay in
the neighborhood.

This fall, spend some time outdoors at night and listen. Importantly, know that nocturnal animals need dark skies, and can become disoriented by the lights around our homes. Simply shutting off exterior lights, or putting them on a timer, and closing window coverings can help local wildlife and preserve our dark skies. 

For more on the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy, visit their website.