West Virginia is known for the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountain ranges that run through it, and the natural beauty associated with it. Forested areas and the elevation provided by the mountains that cut through it contribute to the diversity of fauna you find in West Virginia. This diversity can be seen in the birds, as well as the mammals and amphibians you encounter as you hike through the Appalachian Trail. The woods at night can seem spooky, especially with the odd shrieks and whistles you hear. Many of these can be attributed to the owls in west Virginia that occupy the wooded areas.
8 types of owls In West Virginia
There are 8 species of owls you can find in West Virginia. Some are permanent residents, some are there only for the nesting season, and one species is a rare visitor who has become more frequent in recent years. These species are The Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Great Horned Owl, Snowy Owl, Long Eared Owl, Short Eared Owl. Let’s learn more about the owls you may see, and will probably hear, in West Virginia.
1. Barn Owl
- Length: 12.6-15.8 inches
- Weight: 14.1-24.7 Oz
- Wingspan: 39.4-49.2 inches
The Barn Owl, with its distinctive screech, is a permanent resident of West Virginia. This owl lives up to its name and can often be found occupying barns, and other abandoned structures. They also roost in hollow tree trunks and thick clumps of trees.
These nocturnal predators hunt open fields at night, looking for rodents, which they will swallow whole. This habit of swallowing prey in one gulp means that rather than passing from one end to the other, the owl forms “pellets” which it coughs up. These pellets give an excellent peek into the owl’s diet and are used by researchers to learn more about the owls and their feeding habits, as well as by students.
There are at least 46 varieties of Barn Owl worldwide. The North American version is the largest, while the smallest comes from the Galapagos Islands. The North American Barn Owl is twice the size of its diminutive island cousin. Despite their global presence, habitat loss is beginning to affect their populations in some areas.
2. Barred Owl
- Length: 16.9-19.7 inches
- Weight: 16.6-37.0 oz
- Wingspan: 39.0-43.3 inches
This owl, with its distinctive brown barred wings, is a permanent resident of West Virginia. They make their homes in trees, preferring old-growth forests. They are nocturnal, but they can be heard during the day and their call is very distinctive.
The Barred Owls tend to stay in the same general area for all their lives, rarely venturing more than 6 miles away from where they hatched. Young barred owls are quite acrobatic. They can climb a tree using their talons and bill and flapping their wings.
The Pacific Northwest is starting to see an influx of Barred Owls. This is having an effect on the Spotted Owl population. They are displacing them and hybridizing with them. Both of these are problematic since the spotted owl is threatened.
3. Eastern Screech-owl
- Length: 6.3-9.8 inches
- Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz
- Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 inches
The Eastern Screech Owl is a common resident in most wooded areas. It is a year-round resident of West Virginia and is common in any area that has a large concentration of trees. The Eastern Screech Owl’s mottled brown and grey feathers, allow it to blend very well into the trees, making it a master of disguise.
The Eastern Screech Owl is an expert at hiding, but it produces pellets which it expels at the base of the tree where it lives. Not only does this provide a good opportunity to investigate the owl’s diet, but it also gives clues as to where you can find an Eastern Screech Owl.
Although Eastern Screech Owl typically mates for life, occasionally the male will mate with two females. When this happens the second female will kick the first one out of her nest. She will then lay her own eggs, and incubate both sets of eggs.
4. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Length: 7.1-8.3 inches
- Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz
- Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 inches
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a dainty owl that is a permanent resident in the northeastern corner of West Virginia, and is present but does not breed in other portions. This owl prefers to roost in evergreen trees and tends to stay very close to the trunk just above eye-level.
The Saw-whet Owl is about the same size as a robin, which means that a mouse is a big meal. The deer mouse is a frequent meal of the Saw-Whet Owl. The owl is so small that an adult mouse is enough food for two meals.
Saw-Whet Owls can often be located using songbirds. When an owl moves into the area, the songbirds are likely to kick up a fuss, in an attempt to drive the owl away.
5. Great Horned Owl
- Length: 18.1-24.8 inches
- Weight: 32.1-88.2 oz
- Wingspan: 39.8- 57.1 inches
The Great-Horned Owl can be found in newer woods that have a lot of open spaces. They are permanent residents across the majority of the United States, including West Virginia. These nocturnal birds start to become active around dusk when you can see them coming out to sit on fence posts or swoop over fields.
The Great Horned Owl is large enough that it frequently hunts other birds of prey. It often eats other smaller owls, as well as crows, small mammals. and amphibians.
The Great Horned Owl has adapted to its eyes being immobile in the socket by developing the ability to rotate its head 180 degrees. Its amazing night vision is complemented by its equally amazing hearing. They use a combination of night vision and hearing to help find prey that would otherwise be hidden.
6. Snowy Owl
- Length: 20.5-27.9 inches
- Weight: 56.4-104.1 oz
- Wingspan: 49.6-57.1 inches
Snowy Owls are not a common sight in the United States. Their habitat is generally much further north. Though Snowy Owls will occasionally appear and stay for the Winter in some U.S. states. West Virginia is one state where Snowy Owls make an appearance, mainly in northern parts of the state. They will appear some winters and not others. Snowy Owls that have established a site they winter at, will continue to use that same site.
If there are Snowy Owls near you, they are not as difficult to spot as other owls. They roost in obvious places, and unlike most other owls, they are diurnal and thus active during the day. Snowy Owls prefer wide-open spaces for hunting, but they will perch on a high point.
Unlike other owl species, Snowy Owls are not afraid to leave their place of birth. Owls from the same nest, that were tracked, were found hundreds of miles away from each other, in opposite directions.
7. Long-eared Owl
- Length: 13.8-15.8 inches
- Weight: 7.8-15.3 oz
- Wingspan: 35.4-39.4 inches
The Long-Eared Owl is the most comfortable roosting in dense foliage. It has a presence in West Virginia, although it is not there year-round. Though they enjoy the woods for roosting, they need wide-open areas for hunting.
The ear tufts on its head that give the Long-Eared owl its name are not its only distinguishing feature. The male owl has a call that can be heard 1 kilometer (just over half a mile) away. The Long-Eared Owl has a variety of calls, it has a typical “hoot” and also makes a barking sound.
The Long-Eared Owl is an efficient hunter, with hearing so precise it can snatch insects in pitch darkness. They are extremely elusive animals but can be spotted by looking for their pellets on the ground. All owls have distinctly shaped pellets. In the winter, when they roost in groups, they may also be easier to spot.
8. Short-eared Owl
- Length: 13.4-16.9 inches
- Weight: 7.3-16.8 oz
- Wingspan: 33.5-40.5 inches
The Short-Eared Owl is another on grassland predator. It is also a diurnal owl, which means there is a good chance you could see one. It resides part-time in West-Virginia, but it does not spend its breeding season there. It spends its winters in West-Virginia, where it is most active at dawn and dusk.
When forced to leave the nest, the female Short-Eared Owl will defecate on her eggs. It is though this behavior is meant to hide the smell of the nest, and drive away predators.
The Short-Eared Owl has a presence in most places in the world. The fact that often makes its nests in old strip mining sites works to its advantage, as it expands the possible places the owl could nest.