Every year about this time, a barred owl comes to my house, sits over the roof, and hoots. It interrupts whatever I’m currently binge-watching on Netflix. In many years, a great horned owl gets super-territorial and harasses passers-by in Bangor City Forest. Meanwhile, much more secretively, saw-whet owls return to the state to set up housekeeping. Spring arrives early for owls.
Nature is clever, and sometimes sinister. Owls nest earlier than most birds. Thus, when later-nesting birds hatch their young, the parents can grab an easy meal for their owlets. Great horned owls nest earliest. In fact, they’re already getting started.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife devotes a web page to owls. I know, because I just read it. I also chuckled at its optimism. The page lists 11 owls that nest or wander into Maine, but I’ve never seen four of the listed species here, and I’ve seen three other species only twice in 30 years.
Great horned, barred, and saw-whet owls are common residents. The snowy owl is an annual winter visitor. There was a boom in the snowy population starting around 2011, so they have recently become uncommonly common. The population explosion is subsiding, but they’ve already popped up in Aroostook County, the mountains of Acadia, and Portland Jetport this winter.
Long-eared and short-eared owls are listed as rare Maine nesters, but I’m unaware of any recent nesting activity. Long-eared owls like thick conifers near an open hunting area, and a nest was reported on an island in the channel near Eastport a few years ago. I’ve never seen a long-eared owl in Maine. I don’t remember ever hearing about short-eared owls nesting here, but they probably do. There are multiple nesting areas along the coast in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Short-eared owls are occasionally spotted in winter, but I’ve only seen them here twice.
Barn owls are possible in southern Maine, but you’re more likely to see Sasquatch. The same was true for eastern screech owls, but recent reports indicate that breeders may have crossed the New Hampshire border.
Great gray and northern hawk owls are native to areas far north of Maine. Every 4-5 years, one shows up here. They are oblivious to people, and stay in the same place for weeks at a time, hunting in daylight. When located, they can draw a crowd of onlookers. Boreal owls are also irruptive. But these subarctic owls are tiny, silent, and secretive. We may host a bunch of them in winter, but how would we ever find one? Owls frequently vocalize as they protect a territory and search for a mate. Unfortunately, wintering owls are doing neither, so they tend to be silent, making them almost impossible to find by voice.
Still, we have an ample supply of the Big Three: great horned, barred, and saw-whet. They’re all getting romantically frisky, becoming vocal. Great horned owls have a deep, booming five part call that is sometimes described with the phrase, “Who’s asleep? Me too.” Barred owls are famous for the phrase: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” The saw-whet owl has a call that sounds like a saw blade being sharpened. It’s a rapid series of repetitive piping notes.
For hundreds of years, the tiny saw-whet owl was enigmatic. Like barred and great horned owls, it was considered to be a locally permanent resident. Whenever it was found outside of its expected range, it was assumed to be wandering in search of more abundant prey. Not until the beginning of the 20th Century did biologists start to notice actual evidence of annual migration.
We now know that most (though not all) saw-whet owls migrate in the fall, returning in late winter to begin their courtship. In some years – about every fourth year – almost all of them flood out of the state, in anticipation of a particularly bad winter.
Male saw-whet owls return first, establishing a territory by hooting. In southern Maine, that can start in January. In northern Maine, it may not start until March. In either case, the hooting contests continue and intensify when the females arrive. The curtain has risen. The show has commenced.
So that’s the score. We have 11 possible owls. Four are rare visitors from the north; two are rare visitors from the south. Three are common Maine nesters. One of them is hooting over my house right now, and he needs to shut-up so I can get back to Netflix.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.