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.
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.
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.
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.
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.