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October 24. 2014 5:41PM

Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Owls are a treat for the ears but very rarely for the eyes


WE KNOW not always who are kings by day, but the king of the night is the bold brown owl.” So wrote Brian Walter Proctor (1787-1874) in stanza three of his poem, “The Owl.”

Because of owls’ startling and unexpected voices, heard during the darkness of night, Halloween seems an appropriate occasion to speak of them.

Few species of owls nest in our state, but those that do are most frequently heard rather than seen. In Henry David Thoreau’s Journal of Jan. 7, 1854, he wrote: “I went to these woods partly to hear an owl, but did not; but now that I have left them nearly a mile behind, I hear one distinctly, ‘hoorer hoo.’ Strange that we should hear this sound so often, loud and far — a voice which we call the owl — and yet so rarely see the bird. Oftenest at twilight. It has a singular prominence as a sound; is louder than the voice of a dear friend. Yet we see the friend perhaps daily and the owl but few times in our lives. It is a sound which the wood or the horizon makes.”

March and April are the best times to listen for owls as, during that time frame, they are calling to mark their breeding territories. Even so, I do not consider them “quiet” birds as they occasionally are heard to “speak out” throughout the year.

Three owl species, the great horned, the barred and the diminutive saw-whet, regularly nest in New Hampshire. The common screech owl does not nest here as frequently as it used to, but their nesting can be found occasionally.Several years ago I discovered the nest of a screech owl located in the hollow of a tree close to the back door of a friend’s house in Keene. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a slight movement on a tree limb.

Turning my head a bit, I watched three young owls crowd out of their nest cavity and “slide-walk” their way along a branch. They stopped, shuffled about and finally sat quietly, huddled together.On another occasion, I was fortunate to be invited by a farmer-friend in Hollis to photograph the nest of a barn owl with six young. The owl pair had selected my friend’s tall silo as a nesting site. I still recall my slow climb up what appeared to me to be a rather rickety ladder. My friend followed closely behind, occasionally reminding me that he would catch me if I slipped or at least break my fall. His assurance did not cure my apprehension completely. Finally I was able to look over the top of his silo, focus my camera, and take several photos of the young. The birds were nearly full grown and they spent our time together constantly hissing at me. The return trip to the base of the silo was somewhat disquieting but, thank goodness, uneventful. Other barn owls may have since successfully nested in New Hampshire, but at that time, this was a first record.

The barred owl is most frequently seen, not only because it is our most common owl, but during winter when its food is scarce, it occasionally visits bird feeding areas. Basically the owl hopes to dash out and grab a mouse for a meal. Barred owls are most frequently seen perched on a tree stub or flying over wetland meadows, swamps and along the edges of woodlands during day time. They also can be seen quite often hunting on dark, rainy days.

The long-eared owl is a rare resident of New Hampshire. However, it does nest infrequently in our northern evergreen and deciduous forests. Other owls that do not nest in New Hampshire but are winter visitors include the snowy owl and the hawk owl. The hawk owl nests a bit to our north in southern Canada. The snowy owl is frequently seen here during daytime as it is used to daylight. It nests in the Arctic circumpolar region, the land of the “midnight sun.”

Generally speaking, owls start their pair formation in winter and nest in late winter and early spring. Other than when nesting and caring for their young, owls spend most of their daylight hours well hidden within dense foliage of hardwoods or close to the trunk of coniferous trees.

Some time ago, a longtime Exeter reader-friend told of an interesting owl encounter. He wrote in part: “Recently, the Wildlife Channel featured a saw-whet owl, which like other owls in this area, is commonly heard, but seldom seen. This one, of course, was a captive, but not in a cage, having the freedom of a room. The captive owl kept up a steady vocalization that has been quite familiar to me but could never match it to the owl. One of my bird books describes it best: ‘a soft, single note repeated many times.’

I don’t know if this owl migrates or not, but it most often is heard locally in the early spring when the ‘peepers’ start. I had always thought this sound was produced by a toad or frog.”

Stacey Cole’s address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, NH 03446. “Stacey Cole’s New Hampshire: A Lyrical Landscape” is available at

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