There are many names for a group of owls—a wisdom, a congress, a hooting, for example—but my favorite is a parliament, which is what we have in Central Park right now! Well, not exactly a parliament, because the various owls are not in a group, but the park is decidedly “owly” to the delight of local birders. This past weekend, it was possible to see three different kinds of owls in Central Park: a Great Horned Owl, a Barred Owl, and a somewhat rare, diminutive Northern Saw-Whet Owl. All of these owl species can live in proximity, although the Great Horned Owl is the greatest natural enemy of the Barred Owl, so they prefer to roost in slightly different areas.
Great Horned Owl
This large, most widely distributed species, which is second heaviest only to the Snowy Owl, is also known as a Tiger Owl thanks to its striped feathering. The “horns” are actually feather tufts known as plumicorns. This species is truly great, measuring 17-25” in height with a huge wingspan from 3-5 feet. Their flight speed varies from 2 – 40 MPH, always silent and generally deadly due to their powerful talons which can exert 300 pounds per square inch. They are stunning, but somewhat terrifying and fierce in appearance; females are larger than the males. Currently we have a resident Great Horned Owl nicknamed Geraldine by her birding fan club who has been in residence in the Ramble for over one year. In the past month, a male Great Horned Owl has been widely photographed in her vicinity. The birding community is holding its collective breath, hoping for a bunch of owlets sometime over the next few months.
Discovered about one month ago, the current Barred Owl has mostly been seen in the Ramble and Pinetum. (We must pause here to remember with sadness, the 10 month residence of our beloved Barry the Barred Owl, who passed away August 6, 2021, just shy of her one month anniversary in NYC.) With large soulful eyes, Barred Owls are similar in height to Great Horned Owls, but their wingspan is a bit smaller, ranging from “only” 3-4 feet. They are also known as the Northern Barred Owl or Hoot Owl and are the only owl species with truly brown eyes. Native to the northeastern US, they have advanced across the US and are on their way to being considered invasive in the western US. Their hoot (“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”) is loud and enthusiastic, although they are virtually silent while hunting, usually from a perch rather than in flight.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species, Northern Saw-Whets are native to North America and only about the size of an American Robin and although somewhat common, far more difficult to spot. They tend to roost in dense thickets, such as pine trees, at eye level or up to twenty feet high. Their hearing is so fine they can hunt in literal darkness, using only sound to locate prey. The most famous Northern Saw-Whet in the tri-state area was nicknamed “Rocky”, because she was discovered wrapped up in the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree on November 16, 2020; she mistakenly took a trip from upstate NY to the big Apple, but was rescued and released back into the wild.
Although owls are apex predators and can easily defend themselves, please always be respectful when observing owls in the wild. They need their beauty sleep like the rest of us, but are largely nocturnal so they sleep during the day. When in the presence of an owl, imagine you are in a library reading room or the Quiet Car on an Amtrak train. Keep your voice down and your dog hushed from barking while you marvel at these fantastic creatures.
Thank you for this lovely and informative story. If I see an owl I will carefully tiptoe past.
Owls are kind of cute! I suppose they’re sojourning here because there’s plenty prey for them to eat—rodents in particular. But that also worries me, since there’s a concerted effort to kill the rodents, and if the owls eat those poisoned rodents, they too will die! What a tragic dilemma!
Do you ever do a owl walk if we were in town we could potentially photograph these exquisite creatures
Lovely photos and insights–thank you. We’re so lucky to share Central Park with these noble creatures.
I Love hearing that these guys are thriving out there on the East Coast as well. They are quite literally everywhere here in the PNW, but I always marvel at them when I am lucky enough to catch them out and about. There are TONS of Bunnies around the Seattle area now, more than I can ever remember, and I KNOW that this is their favorite meal, and largely responsible for the incredible abundance of resident Owls around our neighborhoods. I love listening to them communicate, and will go out of my way to see them whenever possible. Cool story. Thank You.
Ever since I got a pic of a Barred Owl on a country road in MI (who dominated the tree and especially the branch), I’ve been an owl enthusiast. And so i appreciate and learned a lot from this post and comments. But yes, sadly it’s true that poisoned rodents also kill our feathered friends. Do what you can to pass the word or encourage legislation to protect them i.e. required warnings on rat medicine perhaps?
Thank you for the educational information. I love owls and always looking to get more educated about them.
While not the only reason for rat infestations, I wish people would remember that feeding “cute” wildlife like squirrels and birds increases the rat population which leads to the use of more poison to kill them, which leads to harm of owls and hawks. You’re not being one with nature, you’re killing other animals too.
TLDR: Squirrels and birds don’t need your help. Feeding them feeds the rats too
I love owls and would appreciate more pictures! Thanks!
I have a Great horned owl in my Grove. I’ve had 2 wonderful experiences with this owl. I talk with them weird huh. I want to know how I can get this grove protected. One city maintenance guy destroyed nest a number of years ago. It’s taken 4 years or so to get one back. I don’t wish to lose anymore. I love all my birds. Could you please advise? Thank you