By Dean Vaglia
Leader Staff Writer
Owls — silent hunters, gliding down from treetops under the cover of night. Beautiful, mysterious and not all the same.
Daryl Bernard, Seven Ponds Nature Center executive director, swung by the Oxford Public Library last month to talk about the owls that live in Michigan — and one owl that used to.
“There are owls pretty much everywhere,” Bernard said. “Even if you live in a pretty urban area or a suburban area, there are some owls that might be in your neighborhood whether you’re aware of them or not. And probably just about every time you take a walk in the woods, you’re being watched from above. Silently, someone is keeping an eye on you.”
According to Bernard, 10 of the 19 species of owls that live in North America can be regularly found in Michigan and fall into three categories: non-migratory residents, migratory residents and irruptive non-residents.
Great Horned Owl
The most “owl” an owl can be, the great horned owl is one of the largest and most distinctive owl species. A non-migratory resident species, the great horned is known for its distinctive peaked feathers that can be confused for its ears.
“They’re tufts of feathers that help break up their outline and … helps them blend in,” Bernard said. “Their ears are actually on the sides of their heads and these tufts have nothing to do with ears.”
Great horned owls will hunt for just about everything with a diet ranging from snakes to frogs to other, smaller birds. They are just as flexible about where they live and can be found in swamplands to plains to developments and everything in between.
The next owl discussed was the barred owl, which gets its name from the distinctive “barred” feathers on its breast and face.
“The reason it’s called the barred owl is because of the ‘barring’ on their chests,” Bernard said. “The back is definitely a browner color, whereas the breast is more of a white with some brown barring.”
One of Michigan’s resident non-migratory owls, the barred owl’s range is limited to everywhere east of and just west of the Mississippi River. They tend to prefer large swathes of unbroken forest and smaller prey than the great horned owl.
Eastern Screech Owl
The eastern screech owl is a common small, non-migratory owl found in Michigan. Known for their monotone trill call, the eastern screech is known for taking up shelter in natural cavities and abandoned wood duck boxes.
The eastern screech comes in either a “red” or “grey morph” set of feathers, allowing it to blend in with various trees across its wide range stretching from southern New England to the tip of central Mexico.
Short Eared Owl
The short eared owl, a migratory resident species, gets its name from the short “ear” tufts above its head. Similar in size to a barred owl, the short eared is known to hunt in the twilight hours gliding above open fields.
“They fly maybe 5-10 feet off the ground and they’re looking for mice and voles and shrews and things like that,” Bernard said. “Sometimes they’ll hover and spot [prey] and they’ll just drop right down and pounce on it.”
The short eared owl can be found year round across the northern US and southern Canada.
Long Eared Owl
Unrelated to the short eared owl, the long eared owl receives its name from the long “ear” tufts found on its head. Hunting nocturnally and roosting communally, long eared owls are known to not handle being around humans very well.
“Unfortunately (birders) go crazy about owls,” Bernard said. “And once the location gets out, a lot of people go there. They want to get great pictures, they crowd in on that owl to see it, and that owl gets stressed and they end up going somewhere else.”
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest and most common owls in Michigan, this owl’s small size tests birders’ ability to find it by sight.
“They’re most often detected by hearing them,” Bernard said.
Despite the name, there is no “southern” saw-whet owl, and the name comes from its call sounding similar to a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.
The first of four non-resident migratory owls that can be found in Michigan, the snowy owl’s presence in the state is based on how much food is available in its arctic home.
“In the arctic, if there’s a really good lemming population … on a given year, the owls … that are hatched are more likely to survive to adulthood,” Bernard said. “This means there’s a larger population of owls in the arctic, which means come wintertime … there’s not enough food to go around, so many owls leave the arctic.”
The amount that makes it into Michigan varies year by year, and the last big year was 2017.
Great Grey Owl
Only a few great greys come to the upper peninsula every year as this tall and heavy owl is mostly found across Scandinavia, Russia and Mongolia. But if you’re feeling lucky, the best place to spot a great grey is in the eastern UP.
Northern Hawk Owl
A very rare owl to find in Michigan, the northern hawk owl can be found clinging to tree tops and hunting small mammals by day. Like the great grey, they’re most likely to be found in the eastern and central UP during the winter.
Slightly larger than the northern saw-whet, the boreal owl is one of the hardest owls to find in Michigan. The UP is the best place to find them if they bother going so far south. Its facial feather pattern separates it from the saw-whet.
Despite the headline, there are 11 owls in this story. This is not a mistake.
“The last known breeding (in Michigan) occurred in 1983,” Bernard said. “There’s very occasional sightings of it … They don’t have real dense feathering, they’re not very well suited for harsh winter conditions, which is why Michigan was always at the northern extent of their range.”
The barn owl is one of the most plentiful owls around the world, being found on every continent except Antarctica. Though considered endangered in Michigan, this structure-dwelling bird is overall not at risk.