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Owls in Newton

Are there any owls in Newton ?

Yes, there are at least two species regularly residing in the city, but as nocturnal creatures, they are more often heard than seen. At this time of year, on an after-dark stroll near the soccer field in Cold Spring Park , along the woods in front of Newton South High School or near the Hammond Pond Park Reservation, you can usually pick up the quavering whistle of an Eastern Screech Owl. This small fellow, feathered either in gray or red, can usually be coaxed out from the deeper woods by imitation of its call. You might catch sight of the bird fluttering in ghostly fashion against the night sky as it comes out to investigate.

During the past few weeks, I have been hearing a screech owl calling just before sunrise from a small wooded area next to our house in Newton Highlands. In a 4:00 AM tour of Newton on a night in December, several of us were able to locate seven of them in just two hours. During the day these birds roost in a nesting box or a tree cavity, and if, with binoculars, you inspect each hole in the trees around your neighborhood, you may discover a screech owl looking back at you. It must be true that owls see people more often than people see owls!

Our other regular Newton resident is the Great Horned Owl, recognized at night by its far-carrying call consisting of a short, staccato run of deep-pitched hoots. They are found in places like Houghton Garden , Kennard Park , or the Newton Cemetery , and by this time of year many have already mated and started to nest. During the day, they also seek out a quiet place to roost, very often in the upper branches of a large white pine, close to the main trunk. I’ve occasionally seen one high up in a pine grove along the Sudbury Aqueduct or in Cutler Park . Their presence may be noted by finding white droppings or some regurgitated owl pellets at the base of a tree. More often it is the excited noise of a bunch of crows that leads to their discovery. Crows detecting a roosting owl will assemble a large group of their fellows to surround it, setting off a loud chorus and notifying everyone within hearing of its presence. The talons and sharp beak of the owl keep the crows from direct attack, but the harassed bird may be forced to fly off, giving you an opportunity for a good look.

Less often seen in Newton are the Long-eared Owl, the Barred Owl, and the Saw-Whet Owl, but all three species have been reported. In early days when there were farmlands, Newton undoubtedly housed some Barn Owls, but they have disappeared with the last of the large, old farm buildings and open fields. The Short-eared Owl and the large Snowy Owl (an occasional winter visitor from the Arctic Tundra) are daytime hunters seen in wide, open areas such as salt marshes or coastal dunes, habitats not found here.

One winter, several years ago, a Boreal Owl, an unusual visitor from the woods of Northern Canada , turned up in the courtyard of the Brown Middle School . It was spotted through the window by an alert teacher, and students got great looks at a species rarely seen in these parts. Many birders would have died to have it on their Life Lists!!

M.G. Criscitiello

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