Great Horned Owl / Lawrence Miller / Adubon Photography Awards.
Facts About Washington Owls
Food and Eating Habits
Nests and Nesting Sites
Mortality and Longevity
Common Owls of Washington
Pellets and Droppings
Typically, owls ingest entire animals—including feathers, fur, teeth, and bones. The undigested material is bundled into compact pellets and later regurgitated (Fig. 6). Pellets are usually found under or near the owl’s favorite roost.
What's in an Owl Pellet?
An owl pellet is a clod of fur or feathers and bone—the indigestible remains of the animals an owl has eaten. Because it swallows small prey whole and is able to digest only the fleshy parts, the owl regurgitates the remaining solid material as a compact pellet or casting. Where owls feed on insects, each regurgitated pellet contains the indigestible parts of the exoskeletons of numerous individual insects.
Although birds of many species regurgitate pellets, pellets from large owl species are especially suited for study because they are big enough to be examined without a microscope, and they contain the entire skeletons of small animals the owl has eaten. (Pellets of other raptors, such as eagles and hawks, are less useful since these birds tear much of the flesh from their victims, and do not swallow bones.) Because owl pellets accumulate in predictable locations, they are readily available for collection and examination.
Pellets last a long time in dry climates and in the protection of barns or other buildings. If they are soaked in warm water, carefully dissected, and examined under magnification, the identity of prey they contain can often be determined from the bones, teeth, and other remains.
The remains hidden inside a pellet usually represent the entire skeleton of every animal the owl has eaten during a night of foraging. There are almost always remains of two or more animals in each pellet.
Pellets range from ½ inch to 4 inches long, depending on the owl’s size and its diet. Pellets, shiny and black when new, turn gray with age.
Owl droppings are semi-liquid and primarily white; a whitewash can sometimes be seen under a nest or roost site.
Enjoy, and remember to wash your hands when done.
Things you can do to encourage owls to live or visit your property include:
- Retain multi-acre patches of coniferous and/or deciduous trees.
- Protect quiet, secluded areas near rivers, creeks, and lakes and away from human activity.
- Retain large dead or dying trees—over 20 feet tall—as potential perches.
- Protect or plant hedgerows and thickets to attract small mammals that owls eat.
- Leave large grasslands alone or mow them only infrequently to provide habitat for small mammals that owls eat.
- Manage mice and rat problems without poison baits, which can potentially kill owls.
- Install owl nest boxes for barn owls, Western screech owls, Northern Pygmy-owls, and Northern sawwhet owls. (SeeWDFW website for resources.)
- Install perch poles (see “Maintaining Hawk Habitat” in the handout on Hawks).
Owl calls are given at different times of day and year, depending on the species, and are associated with territorial behavior, courtship, or begging by the young. The following are the common calls given by each owl species:
Great horned owl: a series of four or five deep, resonant hoots given in various rhythms by different individuals: hoo-hoo-hoo; hoo-hoo (“who’s a-wake, me too”). Calls are heard most in the early evening or predawn hours. The male gives them in all seasons, but commonly in fall and winter as he advertises and defends his territory. The call may be answered in an unhurried way by another owl.
Occasionally two or more owls can be heard hooting, seeming to respond to one another.
This is probably territorial hooting between males, since females are silent except for the few weeks of courtship. Juvenile great horned owls beg with a high, scratchy reeeek well into the summer. The call is similar, but usually shorter and less rasping, than the barn owl’s call.
Barred owl: a clear-voiced series: hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo-hoohoo-hoo-a-aw. Given in words: “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooksfor-you-a-all,” ending with a descending note.
Western screech owl: a slow but accelerating series of short mellow whistles, pwep pwep pwep pwep pwepwepwepepepep, that is slightly lower at the end. Also a two-part trill, with the second part longer. Other calls infrequently heard include a soft bark and a short chuckle.
Northern saw-whet owl: low, whistled toots (about two per second): toit toit toit… or poo poo poo. Also a wheezy, rising, catlike screech: shweeee.
Northern Pygmy-owl: a soft, hollow toot (one note every two seconds). Also a high rattle or rapid trill: tsisisisisisisi.
Barn owl: a long hissing or raspy scream, cssssshhH which sounds similar to a canvas being ripped. The call is similar to, but usually longer and more raspy, than the call for food made by juvenile great horned owls.
Because of their wide-ranging diet that includes rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and songbirds, great horned owls elicit mixed emotions in people, even wildlife-lovers.
Enclose Domestic Animals
Free-roaming chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigeons, small domestic rabbits, and similar animals are susceptible to owl predation. Although rare, there have been reports of great horned owls preying on unattended puppies and small cats. Birds are particularly vulnerable because they are usually conspicuous and concentrate in areas that lack brush or trees to hide in.
By far the best defense is to house domestic birds in a durable, fenced enclosure that will allow the birds to safely eat and loaf outside during the day. Such a structure can be constructed with a wooden framework that is entirely covered with 1-inch poultry wire or similar netting. This outdoor run can be permanent and attached to a coop or other building, or be a portable and moved periodically.
Where a complete and permanent enclosure isn’t practical or desirable, escape cover should be provided. Birds have natural defenses at the sight of an owl and will quickly squeeze under a nearby building, old car, shrub, or other area. Escape cover can be made of planks, plywood, or chicken wire placed over logs, rocks, or bricks. It should be at least 7 x 7 feet wide and long and the cover should be 12 inches off the ground.
Please understand that you cannot expect to fully protect free-range birds from owls and an occasional loss of a bird is to be expected.
Figure 7. Construct a loud clapper by hinging together two, 24-inch 2 x 4s and smacking them together.(Drawing by Jenifer Rees.)
Change Your Routine
Owls will quickly learn the routines on a property if they are successful at catching prey on site. If a problem occurs, people flying pigeons or allowing other birds to feed unattended should vary the routine. Use this technique anytime an owl is spotted nearby.
Install Scare Devices
A variety of devices can frighten a problematic owl. Increasing human activity in the area will keep most owls at a distance. Yelling and clapping hands, firing a gun loaded with blanks (it is illegal to shoot any owl), and banging cans together are all effective when an owl is seen nearby. A “clapper” can be constructed by putting a hinge on the ends of two, 24-inch 2 x 4s and smacking them together (Fig. 7). Any hesitation on the owl’s part will cut its odds of catching a targeted bird.
The “hawk globe” is basically a round mirror designed to scare an attacking hawk, or owl. If it is placed in the flight path the owl uses, an attacking bird will see its reflection and retreat, giving domestic birds a second chance. Because owls hunt on their own, they may avoid returning to a place where they perceive competition from another owl.
Scare devices reduce losses rather than eliminate them. Those who use these devices must be willing to tolerate occasional losses. If predatory birds are hungry, they quickly get used to, and ignore, frightening devices.
Dive Bombing Owls
Most aggressive behavior from owls (barred owls and great horned owls are the most often reported) is motivated by defense of their territory or young, or their search for handouts.
In winter owls establish territories, build nests, and rear young. During this period, adult birds may engage in belligerent behavior, such as attacking creatures many times their size. In this case, the owls are simply trying to protect their homes, their mates, or their young.
When possible, stay away from nesting areas with aggressive birds until the young are flying (three to four weeks after eggs hatch) and the parents are no longer so protective. If you must walk past a nest, wave your arms slowly overhead to keep the birds at a distance. Other protective actions include wearing a hat or helmet, or carrying an umbrella.
Caring for an Injured Owl
Under federal and state law it is illegal for anyone to injure, harass, kill, or possess a bird of prey. Licensed rehabilitators are the only people legally permitted to transport and keep wildlife, including owls.
If you find an injured owl, contact a wildlife rehabilitation facility immediately. Your local wildlife office keeps a list of rehabilitators and can tell you which ones serve your area, or you can look under “Animals” or “Wildlife” in your phone directory.
If a rehabilitator isn’t available, follow the menu options over the phone or on their Web site for information on what to do. (For more information, see Wildlife Rehabilitators and Wildlife Rehabilitation.
Snowy Owls in Washington
What About Them?
A handful of Snowy owls show up in our region on average every other winter. In years with particularly large numbers (like in 2011-2012), we may have owls in our region two years in a row, the second winter a smaller reflection of the year before. Normally their southward migration takes them to the Northern Great Plains; birds appear in Eastern and Western seaboards in so-called “irruption” years. While variable, we often receive larger numbers of immature male birds in our region.
Where to See Them
Snowy Owls are a species that specializes in open spaces, breeding in tundra. During irruption years, they typically show up in open areas of Washington. On the West side of the Cascades the typical spots are coastal areas in Skagit Valley, Boundary Bay, Ocean Shores, and Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. However, they can show up in the city, sometimes in very urban areas in their search for food. Discovery Park, Capitol Hill, and Ballard are some of the recent locations in Nov. and Dec. of 2012. Up-to-date information is often available on tweeters: http://www.surfbirds.com/birdingmail/Group/Tweeters
Why They are Here
The majority of the birds that show up in our region are young birds in search of prey. There is a strong, but complicated connection between lemming populations (the owls’ summer food) and owl migration patterns. Irruptions too are complicated but they are linked to food abundance, which in turn could be linked to weather patterns. Young birds in particular seem to travel farther in search of food, which may be related to the territoriality of adult birds on their winter grounds. Younger, less dominant birds are pushed further afield in search of food. This fluctuates annually, making it difficult to fully understand or predict.
How to See Them
Like any wild bird, owls need space and we recommend at least 50 yards between yourself and the owl, even if the bird is in the city. Keep in mind that even if a bird doesn’t seem agitated (flying away, looking at you) you could be disturbing its prey species as well. Consider these birds stressed, because they are leaving areas where they typically winter in search of available food; your approach could add to the stress on these beautiful birds, which we are lucky to see. Irruptions often coincide with our duck hunting season and a good number of hotspots are within designated hunting areas. We don’t recommend actively exploring areas where hunters are active.
Public Health Concerns
Owls are not a significant source of any infectious disease that can be transmitted to humans or domestic animals. A few human Salmonella infections have resulted from handling owl pellets in school settings. Wash your hands after handling owl pellets.
Owls are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Any permit to lethally control these species would need to be issued from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and would only be issued in very extreme cases.
Ehrlich, Paul R., et al. The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Nehls, Harry B. Familiar Birds of the Northwest: Covering Birds Commonly found in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Northern California, and Western Canada. Portland, OR: Audubon Society of Portland, 1989.
Morse, Robert W., et al. Birds of the Puget Sound Region. R.W. Morse Company, 2003.
Peterson, Roger Tory. A Field Guide to Western Birds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
eNature (owl calls)
Owl Pages(more owl calls)
Figure 2. Great horned owls swoop down on passing prey and seize it with their talons.
Figure 4. The barred owl is a medium large owl with brown eyes and no ear-tufts. (Photo by David Arbour.)
Figure 5. The spotted owl is a medium-sized owl with brown eyes and no ear-tufts. It is gray brown in color, with light spotting on the back and breast. They are slightly smaller than the closely related and similar-appearing barred owl.
Figure 6. Typically, owls ingest entire animals—including feathers, fur, teeth, and bones. (Photo by Lang Elliot.)
Content provided by and with permission from Russell Link WDFW.*
*”Snowy Owls in Washington” created by Seattle Audubon