In the wild, February and March may seem like the worst time for a bird to raise a family, with challenges including frigid temps, sleet, wind, and snow. But this is no ordinary bird, this is a great bird—a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). These large, thick-bodied raptors- weighing in at 2.5 to 5 pounds with 4 ½ to 5’ wingspans – are one of the most widespread owls in North America and have plenty of ‘don’t mess with me’ moxie. They have a very diverse diet, including small mammals, rabbits, geese, herons, amphibians and reptiles, skunks, porcupines – and even other raptorial birds. It is this adaptability and tenacious behavior that gives them a leg up on surviving tough conditions.
Great Horned Owls are among the earliest birds to breed each year, with males staking out territory from other males beginning in October. Most Great Horned Owls mate for life and every autumn they reestablish their bonds by loudly calling to each other. Like many birds, they have a range of vocalizations. Their classic hoot is unmistakable, a deep slightly muffled resonating “hoo-h’HOO–hoo-hoo” call with the female’s voice slightly higher in pitch than the male’s.
While establishing their territory they will seek out a suitable nest. They don’t build their own– instead, they use abandoned real estate like an old Red-tailed Hawk nest or a hollowed tree cavity, even a cliff ledge will do.
When January arrives the parents-to-be will be settled in and ready to start a family. The female will lay 1-4 eggs and incubate the eggs for 30-37 days through all kinds of weather. Only the female can incubate the eggs as she has a featherless patch on her abdomen called a “brood patch,” an area that has many blood vessels and is very efficient at transferring her body heat to the eggs. While she is incubating and brooding the young chicks, the male will hunt for them, but if the food he provides is insufficient she will also hunt for the family. Great Horned Owls are large birds and it takes owlets longer to grow than say a robin and longer to develop and master complex skills.
Nesting early is a risky move but there are definite advantages. By day 45, the young are fully feathered and capable of flight and by the time spring arrives, these youngsters are ready to practice their main craft– hunting. Not only are temperatures milder but there is now an abundance of young inexperienced prey animals, such as rabbits, mice, squirrels and chipmunks who are also venturing out on their own. These predators can now hone their flying and hunting skills under ideal conditions all because their parents were early birds.
Walking through the forest, especially under big trees, you might come across something rather interesting on the ground beneath you. It’s pretty small and dark colored. Maybe it’s a pine cone? Looking closer, you notice this peculiar item is covered in fur, but is obviously not alive. You poke it with a stick and notice it’s a little squishy. Maybe it’s animal scat? You peer even closer and notice that it might even have some small bones sticking out. What you may have found is an owl pellet.
Owls are a bird of prey, which means they hunt other animals. They rely on their excellent vision and even better sense of hearing to locate a meal. Their feet are armed with sharp claws, or talons, that latch onto prey. Instead of having sharp teeth like mammal predators such as coyotes and bobcats, owls have a sharp, down-curved beak that helps them eat meat.
When an owl eats another animal it usually swallows that animal whole. However, not every part of the ingested animal can be digested by the owl. The second of two stomachs in the owl’s digestive system is able to separate the digestible parts from the non-digestible parts of their meal, which includes fur, hair, bones, and teeth. These non-digestible parts are then packed tightly into a neat package inside the owl’s stomach and later regurgitated, almost as if the owl is throwing up. Because the pellet partially blocks their digestive system, an owl usually can’t swallow new prey until it expels the pellet made from the last one.
What is so fascinating about owl pellets is that the bones inside them can be identified. This helps us learn what owls like to eat! Some things to look for in a pellet to help you identify an owl’s prey are the jaws of rodents, which should have the long (usually orange) front teeth, and bird beaks or feet. Unless you can see feathers in the pellet, bones are typically the best way to identify their prey. Other bones that can usually be identified include the pelvis, femur (upper leg bone), humerus (upper arm bone), and scapula (shoulder blade).
In the winter and early spring, a good place to look for owl pellets is under evergreen trees. Why? Because owls tend spend most of their time in evergreen trees in winter because they provide the best cover to stay hidden from other birds that might harass them during the day. So the next time you are in the forest, be on the lookout for owls in the trees, and their pellets at your feet!
Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owls are the most common species of owl in New York State. Snowy Owls, Barn Owls and even Great Gray Owls may be seen irregularity in New York as well. More information can be found here.
Post by Elijah Kruger, State Parks
Featured image: Barred owl by Lilly Schelling, State Parks
There are many species of birds that do not migrate to warmer or more temperate climates, but remain to take advantage of available local food sources.
For some of these smaller birds, specifically chickadees, spending the winters here in the frigid Northeast is possible due to a short-term hibernation state called torpor. During this period, energy expenditure is reduced due to exposure to extreme cold, food shortages, or severe droughts. Throughout this process of thermoregulation (maintenance or regulation of internal body temperature), metabolism, body temperature, and heart rate are decreased in order to help conserve energy and maintain body heat during the harsh winter months.
All of our fine feathered friends depend on specific habitats to obtain food and provide a safe place to nest and nurture their young. By protecting and conserving a wide range of habitats throughout our State Parks, we are ensuring the health and viability of New York State’s resident bird populations.
OPRHP has partnered with Audubon New York in efforts to enhance awareness regarding the conservation of state priority birds within designated New York State Parks. The “Audubon in the Parks” initiative concentrates its efforts on maintaining and conserving essential habitat in Bird Conservation Areas (BCAs) and Important Bird Areas (IBAs) for the over 300 bird species that reside on Park lands.
Currently, 67 out of the 136 IBA sites that have been identified in New York State are located inside our Parks, and 25 out of 59 statewide designated BCA’s also fall within park boundaries. These programs provide activities ranging from bird walks to data entry, and even larger habitat restoration projects.
This joint partnertship fosters public engagement through outreach, environmental interpretation, and habitat restoration in several NYS Parks. In addition, this initiative encourages members, volunteers, birders, and “citizen scientists” to participate in these programs by identifying, monitoring, and conserving essential bird habitat.
Audubon New York and OPRHP are focused on restoring and improving existing bird habitats in State Parks with designated bird BCAs and IBAs sites through partnerships, education, and habitat improvement efforts.
Below are examples of some winter birds commonly found in New York State that you might see in our State Parks. Most commonly you will find these birds perched in a tree, gliding over a open field or even enjoying a snack at your backyard feeder.
The term passerine refers to perching song birds. The vocalists of the bird world, these birds have a repertoire of song, calls and voices; each used for specific purposes. All members of this group have similar physical characteristics. The foot of a passerine has three toes facing forward and one toe directed backwards, which allows them to hang on to tree branches, reeds or any vertical surface. These common bird species can often be heard and seen visiting backyard feeders.
Black-capped Chickadee: Poecile atricapilla
Habitat: Common to mixed wooded areas. Mixed wooded refers to tree species that shed their leaves annually (deciduous) and evergreens or conifers (coniferous).
Diet: Mostly seeds, insects, spiders, berries and small fruit.
Auditory recognition:Chickadee dee dee dee.
Identifying characteristics: Small and fluffy with distinguishing black cap and throat, and white cheeks.
Northern Cardinal: Cardinalis cardinalis
Habitat: Commonly found in brushy areas next to the edges of woods.
Identifying characteristics: Both have large triangular shaped bills. Male cardinals have bright red plumage with a black face and red bill. Females have reddish-brown plumage and red-orange bill.
Tufted Titmouse: Baeolophus bicolor
Habitat: Commonly found in mature deciduous (shed leaves annually) wooded areas.
Diet: Mainly seeds and insects.
Auditory recognition: Peter peter peter peter.
Identifying characteristics: Pale grey color with orange flanks, small pointed grey crest, black forehead and a broad tail.
American Tree Sparrow: Spizella arborea
Habitat: Brushy or weedy areas in proximity to trees, open fields, woodland edges, marshes, and suburban areas.
Diet: Seeds from grasses and plants, few insects and berries.
Auditory recognition: A series of high-pitched sweet whistles and trills. Swee swee ti sidi see zidi zidi zew.
Identifying characteristics: Bicolored bill, white bands on wings and a dark spot on center of chest area.
Dark- Eyed Junco: Junco hyemalis
Habitat: Common to open woodland and brushy areas, along the roadside and at backyard feeders.
Diet: Mainly seeds and insects. Usually seen foraging on the ground beneath feeders.
Auditory recognition: High-pitch trill resembling the ring of an old rotary dial phone.
Identifying characteristics: Grey to grey-brown in color, pale pinkish-white bill, white underbelly, and white outer tail feathers.
All species of Woodpeckers have stiff tail feathers which are used like props, allowing the birds to cling to tree bark while in search of food. Another common characteristic that is shared among woodpeckers is a strong chisel like bill which is used to tap and excavate insects from beneath the bark of trees. They are the percussionists in the world of birds. During a walk in a State Park, Woodpeckers can often be heard tapping on trees as they look for insects to eat.
Downy Woodpecker (Smallest Woodpecker in North America):Picoides pubescens
Habitat: Common to deciduous wooded areas consisting of patches of smaller trees and brush.
Diet: Variety of insects (beetles, ants, gall wasps and caterpillars), seeds, berries.
Auditory recognition: High-pitch whinny with a distinctive high-pitched pik.
Identifying characteristics: Both males and females have a white patch on their back and white spots on their wings. Only males have a red patch on the back of their heads, females do not have this added patch of color.
Pileated Woodpecker (Largest Woodpecker in North America): Dryocopus pileatus
Habitat: Mature hardwood and mixed forests and woodlots.
Diet: Creates a distinctive oval or rectangular hole while foraging on dead trees and logs searching for carpenter ants, termites, larvae of wood-boring beetles, other various insects.
Auditory recognition: Series of 6-8 high-pitched wuks. Wuk, wuk-wuk-wuk, wuk-wuk.
Identifying characteristics: Large in size with a long neck, black plumage on wings, chest and back, notable red crest, and white patch on underside of wings.
Owls belong to the Raptor family, also commonly known as birds of prey. Due to their carnivorous appetites which consists of small mammals (rabbits, moles, ground sqirrels, and mice), these skilled and efficient hunters have razor sharp talons, a hooked beak with sharp edges, acute eyesight, and distinctive facial disks which allow them to search for prey.
Snowy Owl (Heaviest Owl): Bubo scandiacus
Habitat: Perches on ground or fence posts in open fields and marshes.Snowy owls migrate to New York State from Canada and Alaska (also known as the Taiga region of North America).
Diet: Often hunts during the day for small rodents and birds in open fields. Have been known to feed on prey as large as geese.
Auditory recognition: Brooo brooo brooo.
Identifying characteristics: Large and sleek, mostly all white plumage. Face and underwing always white.
Barred Owl: Strix varia
Habitat: Prefers hardwood swamps, woodlands or mature forests consisting of both evergreen and deciduous trees in close proximity to water, and wooded river bottoms.
Diet: Most active at night but has been known to hunt for small mammals and rodents during the day in fields and forests.
Auditory recognition: Hoo hoo ho-ho, hoo hoo ho-hooooooooaar (“who cooks for you”, “who cooks for you-all”).
Identifying characteristics: Brown in color with lighter spots, wings and tail barred brown and white, bold streaks on chest and distinguishing dark eyes.
Barn Owl: Tyto alba
Habitat: Woodlands, groves, farmland, marshes, and cliffs. Prefer to nest in old barns and man-made structures.
Diet: Hunts at night in search of small mammals and rodents (voles, mice, small rats, shrews, and juvenile rabbits).
Auditory recognition: Shiiish or kschh (screech).
Identifying characteristics: Long legs, pale tawny and white plumage with dark eyes surrounded by a white heart shaped border.
Even in the wintertime, these birds depend on specific habitats to obtain food and provide a safe place to nest and nurture their young. By protecting and conserving a wide range of habitats throughout State Parks, OPRHP is ensuring the health and viability of New York State’s resident bird populations.
For more information on the birds depicted here and additional species: