As of September 2020, there are 505 species of birds included in the official list of Bay State wildlife. What does that mean for an avid birdwatcher, you ask? Well, it’s simple: it means he’s in heaven!
Of the over 500 types of feathered friends to be made in Massachusetts, 12 of them are owls, and while watching them may not bring you any of their signature wisdom and mysteriousness, you’ll still enjoy observing these beautiful birds in all sorts of habitats, from wood lots to swamps to open grassland.
- Scientific Name: Megascops asio
- Length: 6.3-9.8 inches
- Weight: 4.3-8.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 18.9-24 inches
A short and stocky bird with a big head and virtually no neck, the eastern screech-owl is covered in either mostly reddish-brown (rufous) or grey feathers. Both colors carry complex banded and spotted patterns that provide excellent camouflage when the birds are perched on tree bark.
Their wings are rounded and their tails are squared, and the birds also have pointed and often raised ear tufts that give their heads a distinctive silhouette.
Birds of this species have yellow eyes, and their preferred habitat is mainly second-growth forests, especially at lower elevations. Most birdwatchers recognize eastern screech-owls by their collection of common sounds, including whinnies, trills, moans, rattles, and screeches.
Nowadays, eastern screech-owls are adapting well to human-modified areas and have been regularly observed roosting and nesting in artificial nest boxes, natural tree cavities in both urban and suburban areas (including residential neighborhoods…these birds aren’t shy!) and agricultural landscapes.
Great Horned Owl
- Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 18.1-24.8 inches
- Weight: 32.1-88.2 ounces
- Wingspan: 39.8-57.1 inches
Great horned owls have been part of Massachusetts’ wildlife for a very long time and are commonly known as cat or hoot owls. The birds are a mottled grey-brown color and sport reddish-brown faces and a white patch of feathers on their throats.
Birds of this species have large, thick bodies with two raised tufts of feathers on their heads and wide, rounded wings. In many ways, great horned owls are considered the nocturnal counterparts of the red-tailed hawk, hunting through the night for small mammals and birds.
In the woods of Massachusetts, these predators live in all types of forests, occasionally preying on skunks and raccoons. They’re well-adapted to living alongside humans, eating the squirrels and rats people attract.
- Scientific Name: Tyto alba
- Length: 12.6-15.8 inches
- Weight: 14.1-24.7 ounces
- Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 inches
Measuring larger than a screech-owl but smaller than a member of the great horned species, the medium-sized barn owl has long, rounded wings and short tails. The bird’s legs are long and its head is smooth and round, sporting no ear tufts.
Monkey-faced barn owls are pale with dark eyes, and their bodies are a mix of buff and grey. Their faces, however, are distinctly white, making it nearly impossible to confuse them with any other owl species in the state.
While it’s true that owls tend to be nocturnal birds, the barn owl is one of the species seen least often during the day. Their deeply nocturnal behavior helps them easily escape detection.
In Massachusetts, barn owls usually roost in a variety of habitats, including man-made structures like old barns and haylofts or natural tree cavities during the day, and spend the night hunting around open coastal marshes.
- Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus
- Length: 20.5-27.9 inches
- Weight: 56.4-104.1 ounces
- Wingspan: 49.6-57.1 inches
Snowy owls are very large birds with round heads and no ear-like tufts of feathers. Their bodies are bulky with thick feathers on their legs that make the owls look wide at their bases when sitting.
The snowy owl has a mostly white body with a few black or brown markings that are more common on females, giving them a nice salt-and-pepper look. Males are typically paler and become even whiter as they grow older.
The yellow-eyed bird’s breeding habitat is the treeless arctic tundra, but you’ll often see one or two of them in Massachusetts during their migration periods in the spring and fall. You can spot one of these owls sitting on or near the ground in an open area; it’ll look like a dirty snowball!
They also perch on the crests of dunes, fence posts, or telephone poles.
- Scientific Name: Asio otus
- Length: 13.8-15.8 inches
- Weight: 7.8-15.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 inches
The long-eared owl has a medium-sized, slender body and distinctively long ear tufts. Factor in their wide yellow eyes, and the birds always seem to show a surprised expression.
Long-eared owls are generally dark with buff or orange faces and black, brown, and buff patterns. Their faces have two vertical white lines between the eyes.
These owls are quite common breeders north and west of Massachusetts, but the Bay State manages to host a small breeding population of its own, plus some regular winter residents. This species prefers grassland or other open areas for foraging, and they nest and roost in dense tall shrubs and trees.
- Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
- Length: 13.4-16.9 inches
- Weight: 7.3-16.8 ounces
- Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches
The medium-sized short-eared owl is a species with rounded heads and very short ears that are somewhat difficult to spot. Their wings are broad and round while their tails are short.
Short-eared owls have brown bodies with buff and white spots on their upperparts, and their faces are pale with yellow eyes that are accented by black edges.
The best time to encounter short-eared owls in Massachusetts is during the wintertime. Not only do these owls prefer not to hunt in open areas, but they also like nesting on the ground.
In Massachusetts, short-eared owls breed almost exclusively on the islands off Cape Cod.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
- Length: 7.1-8.3 inches
- Weight: 2.3-5.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 inches
Saw-whets are the smallest owl species in the eastern United States, and they have relatively large rounded heads and no ear tufts. Northern saw-whet owls are brown with a whitish facial disk, a white-spotted head, and yellow eyes.
Although they’re not frequently seen in the wild, an active banding program has banded a solid population in Massachusetts.
Their highly nocturnal and elusive nature makes these owls hard to see, but they give a sharp, penetrating call multiple times in a row. During the day, northern saw-whet owls roost in dense forests near the trunks of evergreen trees.
- Scientific Name: Strix varias
- Length: 16.9-19.7 inches
- Weight: 16.6-37.0 ounces
- Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 inches
Barred owls can be spotted in most parts of Massachusetts except for the southeast regions. You can hear their calling year-round, which sounds a bit like the bird is asking, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
Birds of this owl species are larger than barn owls but smaller than great horned owls, and this species is stocky with rounded heads and tails and no ear tufts. Barred owls are mostly mottled brown and white with dark, almost black, eyes.
- Scientific Name: Surnia ulula
- Length: 14.2-17.7 inches
- Weight: 8.5-16.0 ounces
- Wingspan: 27.9 inches
The northern hawk-owl is larger than a boreal owl but smaller than a great horned bird, and this medium-sized creature has an oval-shaped body and a long and pointed tail. This owl also has yellow eyes and a black-bordered white face.
Northern hawk-owls are a rare sight in Massachusetts, however, they’ve been reported multiple times. The birds are primarily active during daylight, but they flit about at night, too, living in coniferous or mixed forests near open or marshy areas.
- Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia
- Length: 7.5-9.8 inches
- Weight: 5.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 21.6 inches
Burrowing owls are small birds that have long legs, short tails, rounded heads, and no ear-like tufts of feathers on their heads. They wear a covering of mottled brown feathers and have wide, yellow eyes.
You’ll find these owls spending most of their time on the ground or low perches in open, sparsely vegetated areas like prairies, pastures, deserts, shrubsteppe, or even airports. They’re most active during the day.
As you can guess based on the species’ name, these birds like to nest in burrows, and occasionally, they’ll claim those dug by prairies dogs and ground squirrels as their own.
Great Grey Owl
- Scientific Name: Strix nebulosa
- Length: 24.0-33.1 inches
- Weight: 24.7-60.0 ounces
- Wingspan: 53.9-60.2 inches
When compared to great horned owls, great grey owls are larger in size but not in weight, as most of these birds’ bulk is feathers. Owls of this species are the tallest in the United States, and they have broad wings, a long tail, a big head, and a large facial disk.
Great grey owls are, of course, silvery grey-colored, and they have two pale arcs that form an “X” between their yellow eyes as well as a white “bow tie” across each bird’s neck.
- Scientific Name: Aegolius funereus
- Length: 8.3-11.0 inches
- Weight: 3.3-7.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 21.6-24.4 inches
Boreal owls are small birds with big square heads and ear-like tufts of feathers on them. They have stocky brown bodies and short tails, and while birdwatching, you’ll also notice their greyish-white and brown-bordered faces, yellow eyes, and tiny white dots on their crown.
If you’re determined to spot one of these birds of prey, you’ll have to conduct your birdwatching expedition at night (good luck with that) when this species is actively searching for a rodent or small mammal to make a meal of. Boreal owls also like to roost in different trees every day, making it even more difficult to catch a glimpse of one of them.
With so many fascinating owls to see in Massachusetts, it’s no surprise the Bay State is a hotspot for birdwatchers. Whether you live in the state or find yourself there for just a few days, make sure you keep your eyes and ears open; if you pay close attention, you just may stumble across one of these majestic birds.