Quoddy Nature Notes ~ Owls in Maine

Owls in MaineSnowy Owls in MaineOr, Whoo gives a Hoot?

            According to the Maine DIFW, one might see as many as eleven species of owls in Maine: 1. Great Horned; 2. Barred; 3. Snowy; 4. Long-eared; 5. Short-eared; 6. Northern Saw-whet; 7. Northern Hawk-owl; 8. Great Gray; 9. Boreal; 10. Screech-owl; and, 11. Barn owl. The last four are not listed on the Maine Audubon Field Checklist of Birds, so are less apt to be seen.

I have never seen a Barn owl in Maine (even though my Passamaquoddy Reference Book lists a Barn owl as KamKamoss), but I have seen a Boreal owl, a Great Gray owl and a dead Screech owl. This year is a pretty good year for Snowy owls state wide, but I have only seen one in the Quoddy region, and that was early in December.

Snowy owls live on a circumpolar chunk of permafrost north of the Hudson Bay, and come south if there is a shortage of food in their normal stomping grounds. They bring a range of personalities, as some are very timid, but many are quite tolerant of us geeky birdwatchers and let us get really close to admire these handsome birds. I’ve never heard a Snowy call, as they are usually quiet until they return to their territory to breed in late May or June.

Our Great Horned owl, although almost a pound lighter than the Snowy, is generally more timid than the Snowy owl, and will silently skulk off when a birdwatcher or photographer approaches. This is true except during the nesting season, when the bird may exhibit its fabled ferocity, and has been known to deliver some good scratches to trespassers on its territory.

Great Horned owls nest early in the season, and even though they probably don’t have a calendar, they generally are nesting by Valentines day. The diet of the Great Horned owl is revealing of its strength and hunting ability, as rabbits are its primary prey, but skunks and house cats also serve as entrees.

The killing method from what I have observed is strange, as often the top of the head of the victim is removed. If the owl is well fed it may leave the rest of the carcass there, but I have also seen half eaten rabbits hung in trees. I once found an adult loon with the signature kill method, but I still found the circumstances puzzling, as it was a reasonable distance from the water. If the rabbit population is on a low cycle and other types of prey are not readily available, a Great Horned owl may attack a porcupine, often to the detriment or even the fatality of one or both combatants. The call of the Great Horned is something like: HOOHOOO HOOHOOT!

The other owl that may be seen or heard this time of year is the Barred owl. This is our only owl with dark eyes. The call of the Barred owl is something like: WHO COOKS for YOU, WHO COOKS for YOU all! This is the normal owl talk, but the Barred owl is also capable of some pretty god-awful screams and shrieks. The Barred owl has a surprised, almost an innocent countenance, and is generally pretty tolerant of people spying on its activities.

I have been trying to attract Barred owls to our yard by putting up nest boxes, as we seem to have lots of rodents and few predators, but so far no luck. They seem to want to go west. Barred owls do not depend on old growth forests, and are pretty adaptable, and are now taking over the territory of their cousin, the threatened Spotted owl. Some drastic actions seem to be in the works, like culling out a few thousand Barred owls, when the real cause may be aggressive harvesting of the old growth timber. Does anyone give a hoot?

Read more about Snowy Owls here….


  1. According to DeGraaf and Yamasaki (2001), Saw-whet owls are found in dense forested wetlands and moist mature woods; think cedar, hemlock, red maple and commonly found near the edges of these places, including bogs, where they hunt small mammals. They nest April – May, which is when I am most familiar with hearing their distinctive call. I never recorded a saw-whet owl in the nine years that I participated in the Owl Monitoring Project but at other times I heard them in those same areas. The larger owls will prey on the saw-whet which weighs little more than a robin.

  2. Joan Farnsworth says

    Years ago a Saw-whet owl spent some time in a honeysuckle bush beside my kitchen window. One winter the snow under the feeder was piled high and mice would dig up through it to get fallen seeds. The owl was waiting. I did not ever see him catch something but I don’t think he would stay there if he didn’t.
    You did not mention them in your article. Have they moved on? Many birds have gone since we moved to this place well over 50 years ago. The dawn chorus is more a dawn solo these days and I miss it greatly………..Joan
    The Barred Owls are around regularly.. In the fall they seem to get together for hooting parties. Lots of fun to hear………..Joan

    • Fred Gralenski says

      I never have heard Saw-whets except in the spring, as I think they nest considerably later than the bigger owls. I have seen only a couple, but the numbers seem to have decreased over the last few years, because I’ve heard a lot fewer. (Or is that because I’ve lost a lot of my hearing?) They are generally very tolerant and approachable. A carpenter friend recently told me about a job he once had fixing up an old house. The windows were mostly out, and one day he came to work and a little owl was sitting on the back of an old chair in the middle of the room. He walked up to the owl and looked at it as the owl looked at him. Wondering if something was wrong, he gently ran his forefinger up the back of the chair and the owl perched on that, so he brought the owl to the window to let it go outside. Just as he reached the open window the owl bit him on the skin between his thumb and forefinger, then flew off. He figured that the owl was OK.