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Learning About Owls

Many town residents don't realize that up to 5 species of owls as well as some rarer ones can occur in Greenwich throughout the year.

It's late February but already a female great-horned owl is sitting quietly on a nest high up in a tree in Old Greenwich. 

The owls have chosen an old squirrel nest to raise their family since they do not build their own nests but take over abandoned nests of crows, hawks, and squirrels.  They also will  use large cavities or hollows in trees. 

It's still winter but great-horned owls are one of the earliest avian nesters and quite often the incubating female will be covered by snow as she dedicatedly sits on the nest around the clock for about a month or so. 

The attentive male will bring her food so that she can stay on the nest without flying off and leaving the eggs vulnerable to the cold.  

You may be thinking how tough it must be for birds to nest when it is so cold out but these birds are designed to handle it. The owls' feathers act as insulation from the cold and keep the eggs at the right temperature.

Once the eggs hatch both parents will help feed the young owlets a diet of mice, rats, voles, birds, rabbits, squirrels and even skunks. The fluffy young will remain in the nest for about six weeks until they can start "branching," which means they will start perching on tree branches away from the nest.

Quite often, as they are learning to fly, the young owlets will end up on the ground sometimes in precarious positions. If you find a baby owl on the ground, leave it alone and keep any pets away from it.  

Great-horned owls usually have anywhere from one to three offspring.

They live year round in Greenwich and occupy the more wooded areas of town, especially with tall evergreen trees present. Open areas such as fields and meadows are also important to these "winged tigers" because they provide good feeding grounds for the birds. 

If you see a large nest high in a tree at this time of year, grab a pair of binoculars and examine it closely. You may see a pair of tawny-colored ears sticking out of it!

Some residents are lucky to have great-horneds in or near their own backyards and often hear the birds "hooting" at night. Listen for a distinct, deep "HOO-HOO, HOO HOO" call.

Another regular but secretive owl that calls areas of Greenwich home is the much smaller screech owl. Screech owls inhabit woodlands near water mostly in the more rural, northern sections of town.

These small owls have a much different call than the great-horned and, in fact, it has been described by many as sounding like a tiny horse. If you hear a whistle-like, quivering "whinny" coming from the woods at night you may have a screech owl.  With a little practice you can learn to imitate their call and maybe even have a screech owl answer you back!

Screech owls nest later than great-horned owls and exclusively use tree cavities, hollows or old woodpecker holes to raise their young. They feed on a wide variety of foods such as birds, mice, chipmunks, insects, moths, frogs and salamanders.

You may be able to attract a nesting or roosting screech owl by hanging a specially designed nest box high up on a tall tree at the edge of the woods.

Other owls in Greenwich may be tougher to come by such as barred owls and  especially during spring and fall migration and winter, long-eared and saw-whet owls. 

One owl called the short-eared owl can be active by day and is rarely seen along the coast at locations such as Greenwich Point and offshore Greenwich islands.

Every once in awhile a rare snowy owl will make its way down from the Arctic in the winter giving bird watchers or anyone else for that matter a special treat. When they are sighted it is usually along the coast and they will often perch on the ground, on jetties, sandbars, rocks or even buildings. Anyone who sees these magnificent white owls are encouraged to call their local Audubon Society.

Elizabeth Geske, a Greenwich resident, told Greenwich Gone Wild, "I like the elusiveness and majesty of owls. Their calls in the early morning hours are both magical and eerie. I love to wake up to the sound of their hooting."

One must use special care when searching for owls especially during the day. Owls spend the day roosting in dense vegetation, thick evergreens, holly trees and tree cavities and rely on their camouflage to keep themselves hidden. 

An owl needs to conserve its energy especially during the winter months and flushing the bird from its roost can place unwanted stress on the bird. Also, a flushed owl can be detected by crows that can "mob" or harass it relentlessly. Crows and owls do not get along with each other.

Owls leave tell tale signs of their presence underneath trees where they are roosting. You may notice dark pellets on the ground under the roost that resemble droppings. These are called owl "pellets" and are the undigested bones and fur of the owl's prey that are coughed up much like a cat coughing up a hair ball. 

You also may see the branches or ground below an owl roost splattered with a thick white paste. This is called "white wash" and is the owl's fecal matter. This is another strong clue to an owl's presence.

These mysterious and secretive creatures go widely unnoticed in Greenwich but by using these tips you may be able to see or hear one for yourself. 

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