Nearly 200 years ago, ornithologist John J. Audubon published his seminal work, Birds of America. This beautiful collection of 435 watercolor paintings depicts the diverse species of birds found throughout North America, including the majestic owls of Colorado—the secretive birds of the night that fascinate us with their haunting calls, knowing eyes, and silent flight.
While the distinctive heart-shaped face of Barn Owls conjures warm feelings for bird watchers lucky enough to spot these shy creatures, the 2,000 rats and mice they consume each year almost certainly experience a sentiment closer to terror. And yet, despite Barn Owls’ stealthy manner of flight when hunting at night, they become terribly awkward when disrupted from their daytime retreat, often flailing their wings in a bewildered manner as they rush to seek cover.
While Barn Owls require large areas of open land over which to hunt, they choose to roost in smaller, quiet spaces, such as those found in attics, church belfries, and barns (hence their name) The Barn Owl call is raspy, screechy, and was once likened to that of a strangled opossum by the great John J. Audubon himself.
Great Horned Owl
The largest and most common species of owl found in Colorado, Great Horned Owls live in nearly every habitat in the state, including densely populated cities. Contrary to their name, Great Horned Owls do not have horns, but rather tufts of feathers that slightly resemble horns. They resemble ears too but possess no hearing function. Instead, they are used by the owls to help camouflage them in the trees.
Fierce hunters, Great Horned Owls seek their prey under the cover of darkness, carried swiftly and silently by their large, soft wings. Their piercing yellow eyes are well-suited to hunting in the dark, and possess a magnification 100 times more acute than human eyes. The Great Horned Owl call echoing hauntingly through the night sky may be the only indication an owl is nearby.
When it comes to their food source, they’re spoiled for choice. Rabbits, squirrels, mice, frogs, and mammals of greater size all make for an acceptable feast. During the day, the plumage of Great Horned Owls, which looks like tree bark, allows them to stay perfectly concealed in the trees.
Contrary to their name, Long-eared Owls do not have long ears, but rather tufts of feathers with no hearing function that resemble ears. Perked up like exclamation points, these tufts, which are similar to those of Great Horned Owls, enhance Long-eared Owls’ disguise in the trees. They also give the owls an inquisitive look.
Long-eared owls fly with silent precision as they hunt over grasslands at night, relying on their keen sense of hearing to detect small mammals. During winter, they prefer to roost with other owls of their kind in dense foliage, all superbly camouflaged by their feathers in the trees.
Their secretive nature is less apparent in their nesting behaviors, though. Long-eared Owls often reuse the abandoned nests of large birds such as hawks, crows, and herons, even if those nests are situated lower to the ground or lack the cover the owl would typically prefer. And even if the nests aren’t fully abandoned yet. In 1994, researchers discovered Long-eared Owl eggs in the active nest of a Cooper’s Hawk; the raptor was unknowingly incubating them.
The Long-eared Owl call is a low, breathy hoot heard mostly in spring and summer.
Affectionately known as Saw-whet Owls on account of their call that sounds like a saw blade being sharpened on a whetting stone, these little owls are seldom seen, choosing to roost in dense conifer forests and hunt only at night. Despite their tiny size and gnome-like cuteness, Saw-whet Owls are fierce hunters, dining primarily on rodents caught by silently swooping down from limbs overhead. In line with their reclusive behavior, they prefer to nest in small tree cavities, specifically abandoned woodpecker holes, where they feel safe and tucked away.
In November 2020, a hungry, thirsty female Saw-whet Owl was discovered within the wrapped branches of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. She had traveled 170 miles from Oneonta, New York to New York City. Wildlife rehabilitators nursed her back to health, named her “Rocky”, and released her on the grounds of a wildlife sanctuary. Frontier Airlines later featured “Rocky” on aircraft tails in their fleet.
Beautiful but elusive, Snowy Owls only visit Colorado in the winter, and only when their food source in their natural habitat—Alaska, Canada, and the Arctic Tundra—becomes scarce. Sightings of Snowy Owls are so uncommon in Colorado they often make the news, as was the case in December 2017, when a Snowy Owl was spotted in Westminster, along the shores of Standley Lake. Many curious onlookers became fascinated bird watchers that day.
Unlike most owls that sleep during the day and hunt at night, Snowy Owls prefer to hunt during the day, especially in summertime. Their unique white plumage, which keeps them insulated and camouflaged in their snowy habitat, is of considerable weight. These thick feathers make Snowy Owls the heaviest owl in North America, outweighing Great Horned Owls by a pound.
When Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus published his 1758 book about zoological nomenclature, Systema Naturae, Snowy Owls were one of the many beautiful birds he described. The Snowy Owl call is powerful and raspy.
Images credit: All images are courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing.