9 Owls in Massachusetts

Among the types of owls that can be found throughout the United States, there are 9 species of owl in Massachusetts. Most of them are year-round residents, and a few are winter visitors, but they are all there for you to find.

The varied habitats of the Bay State make excellent homes for owls and other raptors. From deeply wooded forests to salt marshes and sandy or rocky beaches, there are owls to find everywhere you look.

Owls are part of an avian group known as Birds of Prey, which consists of hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, condors, and vultures. They are also referred to as Raptors, from the Latin “raptare” – to seize and carry off, which is how they take their prey.

While most of the raptors in the US are diurnal, meaning that they hunt during the day. owls are primarily nocturnal and hunt mostly at night.

These are birds that you may be more likely to hear than see, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find them hanging out on branches or in the nest during the daytime. Birding hint – learn the calls of those owls most likely to be in your area. Sound helps you zero in on where they are, and knowing what you’re looking for is helpful too.

When identifying raptors, keep in mind that females are much larger than males. While this may make identification problematic with hawks, it’s not as much of an issue for owls.

Owls are silent fliers. Their rounded wings have fringed tips that muffle sound as they fly. Their wings are broad but their bodies are light, making them a sort of avian stealth jet while stalking prey.

Other Birds in Massachusetts

For information on other species of birds in Massachusetts see our articles on Backyard Birds in Massachusetts, Hawks in Massachusetts, Ducks in Massachusetts, Black Birds in Massachusetts, and Woodpeckers in Massachusetts.

Owls in Massachusetts

We’re going to start with the smaller owls found in Massachusetts and work our way up to the largest ones.

1. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific Name Aegolius acadicus                      
  • Size 7.1 to 8.3 inches          
  • Wingspan 16.5 to 18.9 inches


The Northern Saw-whet owl is one of the “cute owls”, and are the smallest owls in Massachusetts. Their name comes from the sound they make, kind of similar to a saw being sharpened across a whetstone.

Northern Saw-whet Owls have large round heads with catlike faces and pale facial discs. They have big yellow eyes and no ear tufts. They are mottled brown with white streaking and a white “V” between their eyes.

Juveniles have a completely different look – cinnamon bodies with dark backs and a very prominent “V” between their eyes.

This is a deep woods owl, but they have also been found in urban areas too. A strictly nocturnal hunter, the Northern Saw-whet Owl’s primary food source is mice. During migration, however, small songbirds can be on the menu.

Tiny Saw-whet owls are often prey for their larger Strigiform cousins, including Screech and Great Horned Owls, Accipiters such as Cooper’s and Broad-winged Hawks, and Peregrine falcons.

Saw-whets spend the daylight hours roosting in conifers, preferring to be around 10 feet off the ground and surrounded by camouflaging foliage. They are sometimes found by flocks of small songbirds, so if you are walking on a trail and notice the Chickadees making a fuss, there may be a Saw-whet Owl hiding up above you in the trees.

Bird Notes

These tiny owls are hard to see, so learning their call will help you locate them. They are most likely to call between January and May, during mating season.

Northern Saw-whet Owls are not afraid to fly long distances over large bodies of water. One actually landed on a fishing vessel 70 miles off the coast from Montauk Point.

A Northern Saw-whet Owl found itself in Rockefeller Center during the holidays by accident. It was found nesting in the Christmas Tree that stands in the New York City landmark, which was cut down in Oneonta and transported down to New York City with the owl snug inside its branches for the whole ride.

Call and Song

2. Eastern Screech Owl

  • Scientific Name Megascops (Otus) asio             
  • Size 6.3 to 9.8 inches           
  • Wingspan 18.9 to 24 inches


A small, well-camouflaged owl is more likely to be heard at night rather than seen. In daylight, these raptors’ ability to blend in against a tree is uncanny (especially the gray morph). The tiny Screech Owl is perfectly patterned to disappear against the bark and into tree cavities and recesses, becoming invisible.

Eastern Screech-owls are small owls with little ear tufts and dark beaks. The gray morph has dark vertical streaking, the red morph is reddish brown (rufous) with brownish streaking and some white underneath, and the brown morph is a dark grayish brown with dark brown streaking and some white underneath. All morphs have bright yellow eyes.

Gray and red are the most common colors, with red occurring about one-third of the time. Brown is the least found of the three color morphs in the east. The gray morph has excellent camouflage – it’s like playing “Where’s Waldo” – they can blend into hollow trees so completely that they can be impossible to find. If you’re staring at a tree thinking that you saw something and the tree bark winks at you, it’s an Eastern Screech Owl.

This is another of the “No Hoot” owls. Screech owls whinny like horses. They call starting at dusk, and you are more likely to locate a Screech Owl by its call rather than by sight.

Screech Owls do use nest boxes, so having a box on your property may convince them to set up a house in your yard.

Bird Notes

Screech owls like cavities in trees that face south or east, to catch the morning sun and warm them up.

Screech owls young are fierce competitors for food. They will toss the smallest owlet out of the nest to get more food from their parents.

Birders who are good at making bird calls use the Screech Owl whinny to stir up small birds like Wrens and Chickadees in wooded thickets. The little birds come out to see where the “dangerous owl” is.

Call and Song

3. Barn Owl

  • Scientific Name Tyto alba               
  • Size 13 to 16 inches                
  • Wingspan 31 to 37 inches


Slim, pale owl with a white heart-shaped facial disc, giving it an eerie look, especially at night.  A strictly nocturnal hunter whose call is a blood-curdling shriek instead of the more familiar hoot. This and their spectral appearance is why they are also called “Ghost Owls”.

The ghostly Barn Owl is gray and brown on top and mostly white underneath. Males tend to be paler all over than females.

These are owls with exceptional hearing and keen night vision. They prowl the nocturnal fields in search of mice and small rodents. Their heart-shaped face and asymmetrical ears enable them to hone in on a vole rustling through the grass.

A Barn Owl swallows their prey whole. What they can’t digest becomes part of the owl pellets found on the ground near the roost.

Bird Notes

Barn Owls have dark brown eyes instead of the golden yellow orbs of most other owl species.

Barns and trees are not the only places Barn Owls are found. A Barn Owl nest was located in New York City’s Yankee Stadium.  

Barn Owls are one of the owl species that are prone to be hit by cars. Their low flights over fields make them susceptible to vehicles. Like most owls, their eyes only look straight ahead. When honed in on their prey, unless they turn their heads, they never see cars coming until they make contact with them.

Call and Song

4. Long-eared Owl

  • Scientific Name Asio otus                 
  • Size 14 to 16 inches          
  • Wingspan 35.4 to 39.4 Inches


Medium-sized, long, and slender owl with large ear tufts that usually point straight up. A nocturnal hunter whose call is a single loud “Hoot!” They may be found roosting in deciduous trees during the day, likely up close to the tree trunk for camouflage.

Large yellow eyes and an orange facial disc are other good field marks for this owl. Large rounded wings and streaked underparts also mark this owl, along with those prominent ear tufts.

Long-eared Owls are grassland hunting specialists, flying on silent wings over open ground to find small mammals and rodents. In daylight, they are hidden and well-camouflaged in the heavily-treed woods surrounding meadows, fields and open grasslands.

Bird Notes

Long-eared Owls are loud! Their “Hoot!” can be heard from up to three-quarters of a mile.

Those big ear tufts make the Long-eared Owl look bigger than it actually is.

Call and Song

5. Short-eared Owl

  • Scientific Name Asio flammeus             
  • Size 14 to 17 inches                
  • Wingspan 34 to 40 inches


The Short-eared Owl is found everywhere with the exception of Australia and Antarctica, making it the most widely-distributed owl in the world. They are long-distance migration specialists and are undaunted by flights over water.

A rounded head and tiny ear tufts mark the medium-sized Short-eared Owl, along with dark eye patches on a white face, giving them a sort of spooky look. The streaked plumage of this owl varies in color from light brown to dark, allowing for great camouflage among the different habitats they call home.

Short-eared Owls are ground nesters, unusual among the owl population. Their coloration makes them very well-camouflaged. While they are hard for other predators to locate, should a hawk or larger owl finds them, they will play dead until the hunter flies away. They will also do a “broken-wing” display if a predator comes too close to the nest.

The time to find Short-eared Owls in Massachusetts is in winter. Look for them searching for prey during the day and at dusk actively hunting over open fields and in coastal marshes. In-flight they present rounded wings with dark wingtips and moth-like movements.

Bird Notes

Short-eared Owls are only one of two owl species found on the Hawaiian Islands (the Barn Owl is the other). Both species were introduced to the islands to curb rodent populations.

Of the six species of owls that don’t live in forest habitats, only three inhabit North America – the Short-eared Owl is one of those three (the Snowy Owl and Burrowing Owl are the other two).

Call and Song

6. Great Horned Owl

  • Scientific Name Bubo virginianus                 
  • Size 18 to 25 inches                   
  • Wingspan 55 inches


Large owl with distinctive long ear tufts (horns) and large yellow eyes. Another owl with varying plumages, cinnamon-hued birds are found more in the eastern areas, so while that’s the norm in Massachusetts, you may find birds with gray or browner feathers.

Juvenile owls look like little ghosts in ghillie suits. They are covered in fluffy whitish down, contrasting with their dark facial disks and those noticeable yellow eyes.

These owls hunt from a perch, looking down from high tree branches out over a field or meadow in search of small rodents, other mammals, and even other birds.

Great Horned Owls take over standing structures from other large raptors, especially old Red-tailed Hawk nests, and spruce them up to their own specifications. Check any nests you find closely – there may be little ear tufts sticking up from the twigs and branches. Young owls are very well-camouflaged in their nests.

Bird Notes

Great Horned Owls tend to stay close to home; they don’t migrate.

Other names for the Great Horned are Tiger Owl, because of their striped bodies, and Hoot Owl, due to their very familiar “Hoo H’ Hoo Hoo Hoo”. A Great Horned Owl hoot can be heard up to ten miles away.

Great Horned Owls are the largest of the tufted ear owls. They are also the largest resident owl in Massachusetts.

When stressed, Great Horned Owls will snap their bills, hiss, and scream. If you hear American Crows cawing and screaming, they have probably located a Great Horned Owl and will continue mobbing it until it either tries to get away or the crows move out. Great Horned Owls are one of the crow’s biggest predators.

Call and Song

7. Barred Owl

  • Scientific Name Strix varia                  
  • Size 19-20 inches        
  • Wingspan 39 to 43.3 inches


A large owl with mottled brown plumage, dark eyes, and a yellow bill, Barred Owls are the most common owl in Massachusetts.

Sitting in the tree and watching for prey is how Barred Owls hunt. They search for small mammals, and will even sit in trees over water and swoop down to take fish. Look for them around dusk and dawn.

Like many owls, Barred Owls don’t migrate. They prefer older deciduous forests with a water source nearby.

Bird Notes

The Barred Owl’s call is the distinctive hooting “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” They love forests near water, so if you’re sitting in the woods around a lake, cup your ears and listen for the call.

Although it is a large bird, the Barred Owl’s fiercest predator is the Great Horned Owl, who will even poach eggs from Barred Owl nests.  Although they live in the same areas, the Barred Owl will move if it finds a Great Horned Owl nesting nearby.

Call and Song

8. Snowy Owl

  • Scientific Name Bubo scandiacus      
  • Size 20.5 to 27.9 inches              
  • Wingspan 49.7 to 57.1 inches


Large, almost all-white owl with variable dark barring found only in winter, especially along the coastal areas of the state.

Snowy Owls come out of the high arctic regions during the winter months in search of food, and coastal beaches and shorelines are prime locations for their visits. They also like wide open spaces that remind them of their arctic tundra home, so airports (they love Logan!) and large parks and preserves are other places to find them.

These beautiful owls live in 24-hour daylight, so they are active more during the day. These are very patient birds. They will perch on a dune or other good lookout spot for hours, surveying the open vista for signs of prey.

How many are sighted depends on the lemming population in their breeding grounds – lots of lemmings means only young birds will venture south in search of a winter food source. Too few furry rodents mean that a Snowy Owl irruption occurs

Bird Notes

Snowy Owls are fast fliers – they have been clocked at speeds up to 50 mph.

You would think a big white owl would be easy to spot, but that white plumage acts like camouflage in certain areas, especially along beaches and sand dunes. If you’ve gone on a Snowy Safari at the beach, you probably know that other white things like plastic bags and buckets can look just like owls.

One of my favorite fake owls was the “Mop Owl” – a mop head added to a duck blind by the hunters to keep geese and ducks from roosting on the blind. It actually fooled some people and made others do a double-take. 

The rule is, if it blinks, it’s most likely an owl; if not, it could just be a mop.

Are Snowy Owls touchy-feely? They can detect prey through the pads of their feet. Snowies can feel the vibrations of moving rodents through the snow. Their feet contain many special nerve endings that make this possible.




Another Owl you may find in Massachusetts

This one is rare for Massachusetts and only found in the northwestern corner of the state, but don’t rule out a sighting of these magnificent owls.

9. Great Gray Owl

  • Scientific Name Strix nebulosa                        
  • Size 24 to 33 inches             
  • Wingspan 54 to 60 inches


Denizens of the Boreal Forests, Great Gray Owls are the largest owls by size in North America. They are big, tall owls with large rounded heads; silver-gray overall with streaks of white, gray, and brown, and lightly barred on the chest. These owls are winter visitors to Massachusetts, found mostly in the northern and western parts of the Bay State.

This dapper owl sports a white “Bow Tie” with a black center on his neck. The tail is long (bow tie and tails?) and the plumage is very fluffy. Their wings are broad, rounded, and fringed for silent flight.

Great Gray Owls inhabit the Taigas and Boreal forests of North America. In the United States, they can be found in pine and fir forests near montane meadows. Their diet consists mostly of small rodents, especially voles. The owl and vole populations are tied closely together – the more voles there are, the more owlets will be around to prey on them.

When the vole population crashes, Great Gray Owls will venture south to find food. These birds are not only nocturnal, they are also crepuscular, seeking prey in twilight and before dawn, and will also hunt in broad daylight when they have nestlings or during the winter.

Like many tree-nesting owls, they prefer something with the move-in conditions rather than new construction. Great Gray Owls prefer old raptor or Common Raven nests to upscale. Broken tree tops and clumps of mistletoe are also high on their list.

Bird Notes

While the Great Gray looks tall, it’s all feathers – both the Great Horned and Snowy owls are heavier and have larger feet and talons.

The Great Grey Owl is also called the Phantom of the North, the Spectral Owl, and the Spruce Owl.

Call and Song

Some cool general owl fun facts

Many owls have asymmetrical ears, meaning that their ears don’t sit directly across from each other. One ear higher and the other ear in a lower position makes them hear their prey far better than having both ears at the same level.

Owls have tube-shaped eyes. This provides them with better depth perception and allows them to see their prey from long distances. They can see for miles, but they don’t see very well up close.

Those tubular eyes are also why owls can move their necks up to 270 degrees. This movement may cut off circulation in their head, but they have a blood-pooling system that runs their brains and eyes until they move their neck and release the pressure on their arteries and veins.

Baby owls are called owlets. Before they get their full flight feathers, they are known as branchlings. You can find them sitting on large branches, staring down at you with those big eyes.

Not all owls Hoot! Screech Owls whinny like a horse, Barn Owls hiss and scream, and the Northern Saw-whet Owl sound like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.

Where to find Owls in Massachusetts

There are owls all over the state.

Just because they’re mostly nocturnal doesn’t mean you won’t find them on your daytime walk in the woods. I’ve found Long-eared Owls perched on branches in broad daylight, Short-eared Owls flying over both grassland and sandy beaches, Screech-owls sleeping in sun-drenched tree hollows and even a Great Horned Owl sitting on a branch right next to the trunk of my big Norway Spruce.

Look for Barred Owls all across the state, with the exception of the southeast areas (Barred Owls like trees near their water sources, and there are very few trees along beaches). Also favoring deciduous forests over beaches, Eastern Screech Owls are more prevalent eastward of the Connecticut River.

Long-eared Owls are best seen in winter. They prefer wooded areas but tend to roost close together. Unfortunately, they are not vocal out of breeding season so listening for them is not an option. They are elusive and difficult to spot in Massachusetts and any other state they inhabit or visit.

Short-eared Owls are also winter visitors, with a small breeding population in the islands off Cape Cod. They prefer a different habitat than their long-eared cousins – they like open areas, especially near water. Look for them in marshes and meadows and farm fields. Tip – Short-eared Owls hunt in the same habitat as Northern Harriers (hawks). If you see Harriers flying over a marshy or grassy area during the day, come back at dawn or dusk and look for Short-eared Owls.

Snowy Owls also like the beaches of Massachusetts. You can find them during the winter months along the coast, but you can often find them at Boston’s Logan Airport, where they have a special program to keep these magnificent birds from harming any airline passengers (and themselves).

The Great Horned Owl is a year-round resident of the state as well as one of the most common owls in Massachusetts. The Northern Saw-whet, Eastern Screech, Barn, Barred, Short-earned, and Long-eared Owls are also residents of Massachusetts.

A note on Owl Etiquette

Owls are sensitive, secretive birds so please observe these few pointers when viewing or photographing owls:

  • Don’t get too close – if the owl looks at you frequently, you’re too close.
  • Stay on “the sidelines” and don’t enter an open area where an owl is hunting.
  • Use binoculars or a scope for viewing and a telephoto lens for photography.
  • Do not intentionally “flush” an owl.
  • If you use audio recordings, minimize their impact on birds, and follow the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.
  • Use discretion when sharing the location of an owl; usually, it’s best to provide details only to people you can trust to treat the owl safely.
  • Do not feed owls anything such as mice, which may cause them to get used to people and can also result in collisions with cars and buildings.
  • Avoid the use of flash photography, especially after dark.
  • Eliminate noise to avoid interfering with a bird’s auditory hunting – if you’re viewing from a car, turn off the engine; if you’re with others, talk in a whisper only when necessary.


To learn about owls, raptors, and other birds in the Bay State, as always, the Massachusetts Audubon Society website is the place to go. They offer many local opportunities across to state to look for birds. Check out their owl prowls, bird walks, and educational programs.

There are also some organizations that do raptor rehabilitation and utilize birds unable to be returned to the wild as teaching ambassadors for the public. While it’s not seeing a Great Horned Owl in the forest, joining one of these programs enables you to get an up-close view of one that you may never get in the woods.

This was just a brief foray into the owls of Massachusetts. We hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and will check out some of our other pieces on birds in the 50 States.

Remember, all you need to get started is a decent pair of binoculars, a good location, and for these birds, a good pair of ears.

On a clear, moonlit night, grab your thermos of coffee and go do that Owl Prowl!

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