Owls in Virginia
There are four owl species commonly found in Virginia, only three of which are associated with forests. They overlap very closely with their daytime counterparts, the hawks, in terms of habitats and food preferences. These birds are resident on their territories year round, and have tended to become very tolerant of man's presence. Many of them have showed up in suburban parks and backyards recently. Three of the four species will use artificial nest boxes. So, as a group, owls are probably more responsive to management practices than hawks.
Great Horned Owl
The great horned owl is the nighttime counterpart to the red-tailed hawk. It resides primarily in upland areas with a mixture of forests, fields, and brushy habitats. Preferred forests tend to be primarily pine, especially for nesting, where it typically adopts an abandoned crow's nest for its own. The horned owl has been compared to a flying bobcat because of its deadliness. It normally hunts from a favored perch tree where it scans openings and brushy areas for food. Its diet includes almost anything it can pick up including rabbits, squirrels, ducks, snakes, and any other prey items that venture out at night. Mixed management with lots of openings or cleared areas benefit horned owls.
Like horned owls are to red-tails, barred owls are very similar to their daytime counterparts, red-shouldered hawks. They are almost always found in association with water in almost any floodplain forest in Virginia. They prefer mature hardwood forests with plenty of tree cavities for potential nest sites, often nesting over water. Unlike horned owls, barred owls seldom venture outside the forest, spending their time hunting the forest floor and swampy edges. The diet of barred owls includes most animals associated with low-lying areas. They take frogs, snakes, and turtles in addition to small mammals and an occasional bird. Since they are cavity nesters barred owls will respond to nest boxes, but only if there are not adequate natural cavities nearby. Management for this species should include preserving bottomland hardwood areas.
In the natural progression of forest owls, screech owls come in as the smallest forest avian predator. About 8 inches in height, these owls occupy the greatest diversity of habitats including mixed forests, woodlots, swamps, and suburban parks. They tend to prefer habitats with more of a hardwood component and are typically found hunting along edge habitats, wet woods, and abandoned fields. Screech owls are voracious predators for their size, taking prey as large as flying squirrels, chipmunks, and mourning doves. However, the bulk of their diet is composed of mice, snakes, frogs, and insects. Even with their flexibility in foods and habitats, screech owls are declining in Virginia. This is thought to be at least partially due to the increasing number of road killed owls. Because of their desire to hunt along edges they can frequently be found adjacent to roads. As cavity nesters, they will respond to nest boxes. These birds will benefit most from normal mixed management strategies including a good mix of woodlots and fields especially if there are nearby streams or swamps.
Different in many ways than the other owls, barn owls have become the most dependent on man. They are found almost entirely in manmade structures, especially abandoned silos, barns, or even duck blinds. The principle diet of this owl species is voles, especially meadow voles. Their primary hunting grounds are abandoned fields, pastures, and marshy areas. This owl has suffered greatly from the unrestricted use of rodenticides around farm buildings where many have died after eating poisoned rats and mice. In appropriate habitats this species can benefit greatly from nest box placement in an unused barn loft or silo. The barn owl can be a great aid to farm owners and should be managed for if possible.