Who Hoots for You?

In the summer, Northern New Hampshire's early morning wake up calls are usually the abrupt “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” of the Oven Bird or the “Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody…” of the White-throated Sparrow. But at night, the lullaby that send us drifting off to sleep is more likely the “Who who who…” of the North Country's owls.

All owls fall under the order Strigiform, one of two major taxonomic orders of raptors. According to New Hampshire Fish and Game, the Granite State hosts 10 different species of owls. Those most common in the White Mountains include the Barred, Eastern Screech, Great Horned, and Northern Saw-whet Owls.

Barred Owl
Photo Credit: From the Fish and Wildlife Service,
Bill Garland and Lee Karney























Hawks, eagles, and falcons comprise the other major order of raptors known as Falconiformes. Often, the ecological niches of the two raptor orders overlap so closely that the only thing separating hawks from owls is what biologists describe as a temporal division of ecological niches. For example both the Bared Owl and the Red-shouldered Hawk share the same habitat of mature forest and wooded swamps with similar diets of small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. However, the Barred Owl is nocturnal (active at night) and the Red-shouldered Hawk is diurnal (active during the day). The temporal separation of activity keeps these two birds from coming into direct competition for resources. (Note that not all owls are nocturnal! Northern Hawk and pygmy owls, and to a lesser extend Snowy, Burrowing, and Short-Eared Owls have all been known to hunt during the day.)

Red-Shoulder Hawk
Photo Credit: From the Fish and Wildlife Service,
Bill Garland and Lee Karney
























But hunting at night is no easy feat! Owls must be able to locate prey in the dark and swiftly approach their prey in the dead silence of night. And, as you might expect, Strigiformes have a number of adaptations that allow them to lead nocturnal lives.

Imagine you are a Barred Owl perched on a tall spruce tree under a full moon. Your right ear is higher than your left, allowing you to pinpoint a mouse scurrying behind you. Because you can’t move your eyes around in their sockets, you swivel your head nearly 270 degrees as you follow the mouse running past the base of your tree. You spread your large wings whose size and fringed feathers allow you to fly swiftly and silently, covering more distance with fewer flaps than the average bird. Quickly you swoop down in the direction of your prey. Pivoting your outer toes to the full extend of their rotation, you create a “web of talons” to scoop up the mouse in one fell swoop. And to think, this small feast would never have been possible without evolution preparing you for the life of a night owl.

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