In the predawn darkness one morning last summer, through the background noise of traffic from nearby I- 93, the distant call of what sounded like an owl drifted in through my half open bedroom window. I strained to listen and heard it repeat, a descending mournful cry. It was surprising, as I don’t often hear owls around our suburban neighborhood. It called on and off for several minutes, then stopped.
I described the sound to a friend of mine, Dr. Larry Kelts, a retired biology professor from Merrimack College who taught ornithology there for many years. He told me what I heard sounded like a screech owl, a 9-inch-long bird of prey that is the most common species of owl in Massachusetts.
A few months later, while walking in the Middlesex Fells Reservation, a heavily used swath of public conservation land that winds through several communities just north of Boston, I was startled to see one of the screech owl’s much larger cousins, a barred owl, staring at me at eye level, perched in a small tree about 30 feet away. In the fading light of a December afternoon, the nearly 2-foot-tall brownish-gray bird with large brown eyes, yellow beak, and prominent facial disc looked every bit the spooky caricature of these nocturnal hunters. Owls’ large eyes allow them to see better in the dark and find potential prey. Their facial discs also help them to locate prey by focusing sound, like that produced by a mouse rustling in the leaves on the forest floor. The owl and I observed each other for several minutes, and I headed on my way. I later read that many male barred owls spend the winter in urban areas, and I recalled seeing one in a tree in Harvard Yard one evening back in the 1980s.
I sent out a group email about my unexpected encounter to several friends and colleagues who share my interest in biology and received back a flurry of owl stories. One friend said he and his wife occasionally hear great horned owls calling from the woods behind their Andover home. Another said she’s seen short-eared owls flying across the salt marshes near her apartment in Salisbury. And a couple from the metrowest area said they hear owls calling quite often in the pine forest behind their house.
The Mass Audubon website lists several more owl species that can be found in Massachusetts, including barn owls, which are one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, being found on every continent except Antarctica, long eared owls, Massachusetts’ least common owl, and the 8-inch-long saw whet owl, the Bay State’s smallest owl.