The Owls Among Us
Three Resident Owl Species in Washtenaw County
It may be the middle of the night or just at dusk or dawn. Have you ever
heard a quavering sound that is somewhat like a small horse whinnying?
Or a call that sounds as if something is asking "Who cooks for you?
Who cooks for you all?"? Or maybe a series of hoots, "hoo hoo hoo
Hoo Hoo HOOO"? If so, you were lucky to have heard one of the three
owls that live year-round in Washtenaw County: the Eastern Screech Owl
(Otus asio), the Barred Owl (Strix varia) and the Great
Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). Of the three, the Screech Owl is
the most common, sometimes even living in residential neighborhoods. The
Great Horned Owl is less common but still fairly abundant, and the
Barred Owl is the least common, typically found only in the western half
of the county.
The Eastern Screech Owl is the smallest of our three owls, 7-10" long, with a wingspread of 18-24". It has ear tufts (feathers that stick up and resemble horns) and comes in two color phases, red and gray. Both can be seen in our area, but the gray color phase is more common in Michigan. The Screech Owl has two calls, the "whinny" mentioned above that some folks describe as a mournful descending whistle, and a mellow muted trill that some refer to as a "tremolo". It may make one or the other, or both calls. Screech Owls are cavity nesters and will often use nest boxes, especially when natural cavities are in short supply. Once all the leaves have dropped for winter, Screech Owls will often use cavities for their daytime roost. On winter walks, watch for cavities that face the sun and you might just see a Screech Owl soaking up some rays!
The Barred Owl is the next largest of our countys owls. This birdthe one who calls in a booming voice "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?"is 17-24" long with a wingspan of 40-50". It has black eyes (our other two owls have yellow eyes), no ear tufts, and horizontal marks on its upper chest, hence the name "barred". It is most likely to be active right at dawn or dusk, even sometimes calling on cloudy days! Once the most common owl in Michigan, populations have declined greatly due to hunting and loss of forest habitat. A 1954 amendment to the Michigan Game Law of 1929 made it illegal to shoot any bird of prey, and fortunately Barred Owl numbers have increased in some areas.
Our largest resident owl is the Great Horned Owl. Ear tufts and all, this bird is not much taller than the Barred Owl, but its wingspan can reach 60" and many consider it one of the most powerful of all North American owls! Its call is one that most folks recognize as an owl calla series of hoots, "hoo hoo hoo Hoo Hoo HOOO", which is often answered by another series with a slightly lower pitch (these are the males). Great Horned Owls are quite vocal in December and January as they prepare for their nesting season; females are often sitting on eggs by the first of February! They nest among tree branches, often using an old hawk or crow nest, and with no leaves to interfere you can sometimes spot the birds on the nest.
The colder months of the year seem to offer greater chances to see and hear owls, partly because we have more darkness in our days and partly because our owls establish pair bonds in winter and early spring and typically are more vocal then. Keep your ears and eyes alert and perhaps this winter youll encounter one of our resident owls, and call yourself lucky for "meeting" one of the owls among us!
Faye Stoner, Park Naturalist