If you hear sounds in the night, see a flutter of wings or eyes peering from a tree and know an owl is near, the Central Ohio Owl Project wants to hear from you.
Through the end of February, this Ohio Dominican University-based project is collecting reports of owl sounds, sightings and photos.
The goal is to gather information about all species of owls wintering in all parts of Ohio, especially the barn owl, designated as threatened, and the long-eared owl and the northern saw-whet owl, both considered species of special interest in Ohio – owls that have reached the edge of their breeding range in the state and are uncommon.
While reports are being solicited from all parts of Ohio, the focus is on central Ohio, including Champaign County.
“No matter where you live, there is a good chance that there is an owl somewhere close,” said Dr. Blake Mathys, ODU associate professor of Environmental Science and founder of the Central Ohio Owl Project (COOP).
“The more people checking their local trees, the more owls that will be found, and then those can be reported to the project,” he said, adding that exact locations of sightings remain confidential.
Two COOP websites (www.ohiodominican.edu/OwlProject and http://blakemathys.com/COOP.html) provide information about Ohio owls, the project and why it was created.
On one of the sites, Mathys talks of annual owl walks he led at his family’s Union County farm starting in 2013, introducing people to the “charismatic,” but “reclusive” creatures.
He says that a few years ago he noticed fewer reports of long-eared, barn and northern saw-whet owls on databases. Due in part to his own sightings, he concluded people weren’t reporting owls because they wanted to deter trespassers and because they didn’t want owls disturbed.
Unlike other public monitoring websites, COOP only reports the townships or counties where sightings occur, but not specific areas.
“It’s likely that many people know of owls that spend the winter in their evergreen trees or barn owls that roost in one of their outbuildings, but don’t know about the significance of the owls’ presence or how to report it,” Mathys writes. “I hope to inspire people to get out and check for owls in their local areas.”
Mathys hopes public input will provide a more complete picture of Ohio owls, thus increasing interest in the secretive birds.
Mathys said eight species of owls can be found in Ohio each year, with the great horned owl, barred owl and eastern screech owl appearing in most parts of the state year-round. Snowy owls and short-eared owls are seen mainly in the winter.
The three owls that are the focus of COOP – barn owl, long-eared owl and northern saw-whet owl – are mainly nocturnal and harder to find, Mathys said, adding that the long-eared and northern saw-whet often roost in thick vegetation and in evergreen trees during the day, while barn owls often roost in buildings and evergreen trees.
“Long-eared owls and northern saw-whet owls spend the winter in Ohio,” Mathys said. “They migrate down from farther north, having spent the summer breeding in Canada and some northern states. There may be a few individuals of both of those species that breed in Ohio, but they are mainly here for the winter.”
He said barn owls are more common, but number only in the hundreds in Ohio.
When owls can’t be found, sometimes their pellets of undigested food indicate they are in the area.
“Pellets are often a good clue that an owl is around,” Mathys said. “They are small, gray, oval or rounded, and made mostly of hair. Owls regurgitate them during the day, so pellets can build up below places where they regularly roost. Barn owl pellets are particularly large, up to three inches long, so are especially obvious.”
Join the project
Mathys hopes residents of rural, suburban and urban areas search for owls. He said owls are in all these settings.
When you see – or merely hear – an owl, go to the COOP website (www.ohiodominican.edu/OwlProject) to make a report. Photos are welcome.
“The exciting thing about owls is that they can show up anywhere,” Mathys said. “You don’t have to live by a park or nature preserve to find an owl. I recommend that people check any evergreen trees in their yard and neighborhood, and farmers can look around their outbuildings and silos for barn owls.”
Mathys said over 1,199 owl reports have been submitted to the project since December 2020.
“Targeted searches by the project have found four northern saw-whet owls, one long-eared owl and two barn owls so far, and we’ve collected hundreds of owl pellets, which will be used to analyze the diet of Ohio owls,” he said.
Students will assist in searching for owls, dissecting pellets and identifying prey indicated by the pellets.
Mathys said high school teacher and photographer John Kuenzili, a longtime friend, also is on the search for owls for COOP.
Columbus Audubon is providing financial support, while Ohio Dominican University produces promotional materials and hosts the webpage and database for reported sightings.
Mathys said results of the project will appear on the website, in scientific journals and on social media.