• Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

OWL UP! The Barred Owl in NYC 1900-2020 (a brief history)

Updated: 3 days ago

Barred Owl, along the Loch in the Central Park north woods on Sunday evening 8 Nov 2020

Deborah Allen

18 November 2020

Bird Notes: JUST ADDED: Owl Walk on Friday, 20 November meeting at 5pm. Details below. Still scheduled is the Thanksgiving Day Owl Walk at 5pm (note new time) on 26 November with a rain date of Friday (27 November) - same meeting time. We are after Barred Owl(s) at the north end of Central Park. We might also add a Saturday, 28 November Owl Walk meeting at Riverside Park and 115th street at 4pm - keep an eye on the SCHEDULE page on this web site for all details.

In case you hadn't noticed, NYC went OWL LOCO this week with the publication in the NY Times of an article about the Barred Owl at the north end of Central Park:


The Birders call him (her?) Barry...and previous Barred Owls in Harlem (Manhattan) have been named "Bario Owls;" or as one commentator in the Times suggested, maybe this one should be Barack. Of course, no event like an owl in Central Park is without controversy: 50% of Times' readers want to know where the owl is and how to see it, and the other 50% want the location kept an absolute secret and no one should ever go look for a NYC Owl. There are two things Deborah and I have learned about birders and owls in NYC: (a) birders are not happy unless they are fighting about an owl; (b) birders are not happy unless they are unhappy.

Northern Flicker, Central Park (Pinetum), 14 November 2020 by Deborah Allen

In this week's Historical Notes we present in photos and articles, information plus observations on the Barred Owl in the NYC area in the last 125 years or so. There is the 1900 incident of the police called in to shoot and kill a Brooklyn Barred Owl - you'll have to read it yourself to find out why! Nesting Barred Owls in Bronx Park (1901); Banding a Barn (yes Barn) Owl and a Saw-whet Owl at a Bronx High School in 1932 with the bander/teacher writing, "It is the stimulation of the imagination in discussions of banding for scientific purposes, and the idea that some of the students may later find pleasure in bird-banding and in securing scientific results, or may even bring in reports of banded birds, that seems to me their greatest value." A NY Times January 1996 piece on the "Bario" (Barred Owl) of Harlem that winter; and then a few assorted owl articles about nesting Barred Owls...and the status of NYC Owls in February 2012.

If you want to read a brief history of all owls in NYC, Deborah Allen and I wrote an article that was published in the Conservationist: https://tinyurl.com/y5qovhzv

along with the History of the Eastern Screech-owl in NYC from ca. 1865-2000:


Don't worry, be happy. NYC Owls are alright.

Great Blue Heron (immature), Pelham Bay Park (the Bronx), 3 Nov 2020 by Deborah Allen

[below] Red-throated Loon [first-winter] in Pelham Bay Park (the Bronx), 13 Nov 2020

Deborah Allen

[below left] Cackling Goose, Randall's Island (Manhattan), 14 Nov 2020 by Deborah Allen

Bird Walks for mid-late November

All Walks @ $10/person - All walks in Central Park

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here

1. Friday, 20 November at 8:30am - Conservatory Garden at 105th street and 5th Avenue. Walk down the front (main) steps and straight ahead by 150 feet to the area between the men's room (on the right/north) and ladies' room (left/south) $10

1a. OWL WALK - Friday, 20 November at 5:00pm - meet 106th st. and 5th Ave for BARRED OWLS. $10. See SCHEDULE page of this web site for details!

2. Saturday, 21 November at 7:30am and again at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive $10

3. Sunday, 22 November at 7:30am and again at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive $10

4. Monday, 23 November at 8:30am - Strawberry Fields (Imagine Mosaic) at 72nd St. and Central Park West $10 - LAST MONDAY WALK for Autumn 2020.


OWL WALK - Thursday 26 November (Thanksgiving Day) at 5:00pm - meet 106th st. and 5th Ave for BARRED OWLS. $10. See SCHEDULE page of this web site for details!


If you do the 7:30am walk you can do the second (9:30am walk) for free. You get two for one. Weekend walks will continue through August and into December. Monday walks at 8:30am begin on Labor Day, 7 September and will continue through the end of October. Friday morning walks start 25 September and through October at least. What are you waiting for?

Call (718-828-8262) or Email us with questions: rdcny@earthlink.net

Fox Sparrow; Central Park (Ramble: Evodia Field), 15 November 2020 by Deborah Allen

The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30/9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time! Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden; Mondays at Strawberry Fields - check the "Meeting Points" page of this web site for exact meeting location.

Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is (rdcny@earthlink.net). If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks (except Fridays) near the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total) - though the Boathouse is closed right now and will re-open in April 2021 according to the owners. Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we aim to please.

Pine Siskin in Central Park (Dene Slope at 66th street) on 8 November 2020 by D. Allen

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Friday, 13 November 2020 (Conservatory Garden at 8:30am): No Bird Walk = RAIN

Deborah's List of Birds for Friday, 13 November: No Bird Walk Due to Rain

Barred Owl on Thursday night 5 November on our owl walk - very close!

Photo by Adam Bagun

Saturday-Sunday, 14th-15th November (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am and again at 9:30am): Please note: the bathrooms at the Boathouse are NOT open. However, we do pass two other sets of bathrooms on the walk. Saturday, 14 November: Of the two weekend days, Saturday was easily the better of the two but bird-wise, things are definitely slowing down for the year. We had a flock of 10 Pine Siskins at the outset of the walk - perhaps the last we will see this autumn. There were also several Purple Finches and a Red-breasted Nuthatch or two. Overhead the occasional raptor migrant including Red-shouldered Hawks and Turkey Vultures - the last good visible migration day of the year?

On 15 November (Sunday) birding was slower, but we found some good birds including Rusty Blackbirds (2) near the Upper Lobe; a nearby Winter Wren plus lots and lots of Tufted Titmice.

Deborah's List of Birds for Saturday, 14 November: https://tinyurl.com/yyuptan2

Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday, 15 November: https://tinyurl.com/y3rooyx9

Monday, 16 November (Conservatory Garden at 8:30am): the penultimate Monday walk for the season featured a Purple Finch at the Bird Feeders...and not much else of note! OK OK I lied: there were 8 Wood Ducks at Turtle Pond; flyover (early - like before 730am) Cooper's Hawk...and lots of good ducks at the Reservoir such as Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, a pair of Gadwall...

Deborah's List of Birds for Monday, 16 November: https://tinyurl.com/y2o4yfes

Barred Owl, Washington State near Bellingham, January 2016


The Barred Owl in NYC 1900-2020

1900. Syrnium nebulosum. The Barred Owl is rather rare on Long Island. The present record has to do with its occurrence as a bird of the city [Brooklyn], my attention having been attracted to it by a crowd which gathered to observe the unfamiliar sight of a large bird in the heart of the city, sitting with every appearance of contentment in the bare branches of a tree. The small boys, however, soon began to pelt it with stones, though it was with difficulty that the bird could be made to fly, and even the presence of a policeman had little effect in restraining them. In spite of much persecution the bird remained in the vicinity for several days more, but the commotion and excitement produced by his presence led to his premature end. Various missiles aimed at the Owl by the crowd during the day became a menace to the windows and heads and led the householders to consider the bird a rather unwelcome visitor. The bird was accordingly shot and afterward fell into my possession. The contents of the stomach, as well as beak and claws, bore testimony to the havoc which he had made the preceding night among the English Sparrows.

William C. BRAISLIN, M.D., Brooklyn, New York


Bird-Banding in a Bronx High School [1932]. Even in a city as large as New York, bird-study, as a part of the elementary course in biology, may lead to some unusual banding records. On November 11, 1929, a student whose home is in the Bronx asked one of our teachers if she would like a bird with a very long bill. She and her father had seen the bird on Sunday beating against the side wall of their yard, and had noticed that it was bleeding about the bill. Tuesday she brought it to school in a grape-basket with a cheesecloth covering. All day long the students in the science department had what was probably their first and only view of a live Woodcock (Scolopax minor). At the close of school the bird was taken on the train to White Plains, New York, where it was banded in the presence of a group of small boys, and released about dusk in a wooded ravine. It could not seem to navigate, for it lost its balance continually, probably because of lack of food. To prevent death by cats, the bird was brought home alive in the basket. That, evening Mr. Colvin Farley, another bander, released it in a part of his garden which is surrounded by two-foot wire fence. I hope it continued its migration, for no trace of it was seen the next day or after. The capture of a Woodcock in the Bronx was a surprise, but a greater one was yet to come.

Just a week later a boy brought in a Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) which he had found in a hallway of an apartment house in the Bronx near High Bridge, which spans the Harlem River near its junction with the Hudson River. This bird likewise added a good deal of local color to the science classes and was duly banded at my station at White Plains. As it was the first owl I had banded, I was surprised at the twisting abilities of its head and the sharpness of its claws. At the suggestion of the boys, it was initially provided with two pencils to hold in its talons while the band was attached. Silently it flew from the perch it had found in our apple tree, and it has not been heard of since.

Early in the morning of October 31, 1930, a janitor discovered a bird in a small room on the fifth floor of our school building. He lost no time in reporting the fact to Mr. Hastings, the head of our science department, who captured the bird, a Barn Owl (Tyto alba), and put it in a scrap basket with a cardboard cover. The owl was banded at a meeting of the Science Club that afternoon and was liberated from the roof by the members. It is not the return records as interesting as they would be to which I look forward in handing these birds, but the excitement and interest that accompany each visit when birds invade our school building. It is the stimulation of the imagination in discussions of banding for scientific purposes, and the idea that some of the students may later find pleasure in bird-banding and in securing scientific results, or may even bring in reports of banded birds, that seems to me their greatest value.

Grace Coit Meleney, 200 Chatterton Parkway, White Plains, New York.

For more info on Grace, see https://tinyurl.com/yy28sour

Barred Owl, along the Loch (Central Park), 5 November 2020; Deborah Allen

The Barred Owl in Bronx Park [1901] For nearly two years there has lived in the Hemlock Grove a Barred Owl, or rather a pair of them, and though neither of them were often seen, yet at morning and early evening their weird hoots were familiar and delightful to us all. Early in February, an old dead hemlock was cut down, and the Owl's nest was discovered to be in it, much to our regret, for it might have been spared. During the next snowstorm an Owl was reported to have been seen perching low down in an old tree, and after the next storm it was found on the ground too feeble to fly. It was brought into the museum, and found to be very thin and sick, for while trying to feed it with finely chopped raw meat, it was discovered that it had two large ulcers in its throat, which prevented its swallowing, and that it was slowly starving to death. It died after ineffectual attempts at curing it by swabbing its throat with kerosene, and it seems likely that it had caught "the roup" from some chicken, stolen from our neighbors' poultry yards. The symptoms were pronounced to be the same, extreme lassitude and indifference, sitting with its head down, running at the mouth, an inability to swallow. Its mate has been seen since near the place where their nest used to be.

Elizabeth G. Britton, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx Park.



30 January 1940

Reports of a wild white swan disporting itself daily among the ice floes of the Hudson River about a half mile from Nyack, of numbers of huge bald eagles foraging daily off Dyckman Street, of a rare Barred Owl that lately has taken up roost in a tree at Fifth Avenue and Seventy-ninth Street, and stories of seldom seen marine fowl straggling into Long Island bird sanctuaries from the Far North-all were received here yesterday.


NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: HARLEM; Wide-Eyed Wonder at a Visit from the Barrio Owl


7 January 1996

For a few days in early December, only Brandon Shackelford, 8, and his teen-age sister, Tawanna, knew about the large owl in the tree in the James Weldon Johnson Houses courtyard in East Harlem. Brandon had glanced out the window of the family's third-floor apartment on a Saturday morning, and there it was, not more than 20 feet away, asleep. It was a barred owl, named for its bands of dark neck feathers, but during its week-long stay, it came to be known as the Barrio Owl. Other characteristics of the barred owl are its size (nearly two feet tall), four-foot wingspan, call (which sounds like "who cooks for you") and big brown eyes (most owls have yellow). Brandon was struck by "its three sets of eyelids." Normally, the barred owl hangs out in swampy or densely wooded areas. What drove this owl to East Harlem, bird-watchers said, was the search for food, which it found mostly in the form of pigeons. By the following Tuesday, word was out. Someone called the local Audubon Society. "The volunteer who took the call told me there was a barred owl in East Harlem, and I said, 'Sure there is,' " said Norman Stotz, a society board member. That afternoon another call came in. The city's hard-core bird-watchers are an intrepid group who think nothing of heading to Central Park on a frigid day to see a rare bird. Last Thursday, the icy day after the city's most recent winter storm, the grapevine was alive with the sighting of a rare great horned owl. About a dozen bird-watchers, many older than 60, traipsed into the park with their high-powered binoculars and were rewarded for their efforts. On several mornings in December, the devotees gathered early at the Johnson Houses to gaze at the barred owl. They were joined by residents of the Taft and Jefferson Houses. Brandon said some people threw rocks to see the bird fly, but most were well behaved, interested, concerned. In the evenings, the owl flew off to dine. All the attention may have driven it away for good, or perhaps the easy prey was gone. Mr. Stotz said it probably headed south, and he worried that "barred owls have tough times in winter out of their habitat." For the Shackelfords, the bird took on greater significance. Brandon's grandmother died last year, and the family missed her. She was fond of looking out the window, said Stephanie Shackelford, Brandon's mother. The owl, it seemed, was always looking into the window at the family. "I don't believe in reincarnation," Ms. Shackelford said, but she added that it was hard to get the possibility out of her mind.

[above] Barred Owl, Bellingham, Washington State, 26 July 2016; Deborah Allen

[below] Barred Owl, New Jersey, July 2018; Tom Lee MD, PhD

A Family of Great Barred Owls (1908)


THE Hoo hoo! hoo of the Barred Owl, issuing from the depths of the wood on a cloudy summer's day, or at evening time, usually attracts attention and passing comment. To some it is a mournful sound, while to those who have a taste for the fields, it is most pleasing and effective in giving a touch of the wild woods to the surroundings. For the sake of those who have regard for the big bird, I venture to publish the following short sketch.

One Sunday, late in April, 1902, we were driving through a well-grown patch of hard wood in Schraalenburgh, New Jersey, and, as we passed along, a companion had the good luck to spy a fluffy, grayish white object at the foot of a large white oak. This tree stood among others only twenty feet back from the roadside. Hastening to the spot, we found a partially grown Barred Owl, which had fallen out of its nest, either through some accident or because the nest was naturally insecure. Judging from the mentality later displayed by this baby owl, I rather hesitate to criticize the wisdom of its parents in selecting such a location, and in building only a mere suggestion of a nest in an open fork made by three limbs projecting from the main trunk of the tree. The little one, not at all hurt by the fall, was at once adopted and taken home.

Because of many past experiences with several varieties of young Hawks, I was most agreeably surprised at the extreme gentleness and friendliness displayed from the first by this little Owl. He was still in his downy coat, and, as yet, too young to stand on his legs. We fed him on fresh meat, supplemented, when possible, by mice and deceased young chickens and ducks. The importance of feeding growing Hawks, Crows, and Owls on these little animals is well known. If these carnivorous birds do not receive small, readily digested bones, their supply of lime salts will be so meager that rickets will result; that is, the developing bones in the young bird will be structurally so weak that they will either break or bend and become deformed, as the increasing weight of the growing bird is thrown upon them. I remember well a young Red-shouldered Hawk that came to grief from a too liberal supply of butcher's meat without sufficient bone to provide lime.

Our Owl thrived from the first, and, until he was old enough to go about out-of-doors, he slept at night in a large basket in the house. Since he insisted on being fed at daybreak, I kept him near my bed, and, when he woke me, calling, I would satisfy him. After that he would promptly go to sleep again. Most of his days were spent taking short naps, fixing his feathers, stretching his wings, and trying to fly.

As he grew, we all obtained considerable amusement from watching his various antics. One interesting performance was to place him on the back of a gentle horse quietly eating grass on the lawn. The Owl would look about and feel very much at home, except that every time "Winnie" turned to drive the flies away, he would scold her head with great energy, as if it were a strange animal attacking the one on which he was perched.

He also furnished no end of entertainment for the hens, who used to form an admiring circle and stare at him. I am sure that what the hens said would have been interesting if we could have known it. Judging from his actions, the amusement obtained on the part of the hens was reciprocated. He would look from hen to hen, continually bobbing his head up and down, always moving his neck from side to side. His head thus moved in a perpendicular line each time, parallel to the line just described. This motion was employed whenever he wished to inspect critically any object at a distance. Our Owl, apparently, could see quite well even in bright sunshine; and, when sitting quietly on the piazza, he would follow, with the motion of his head, some one who might be passing along the road, which was about one hundred yards distant.

As he grew and learned to fly, he went at large while people were about. At other times we shut him up, because we feared that a stranger might shoot him. He certainly surprised me by his friendliness, gentleness and intelligence, although, it must be confessed, that as regards the latter quality, he never equaled any of my Crows, Bluejays, or Purple Grackles.

Our Owl, to my knowledge, never caught any birds, or obtained food for himself in any way, but depended exclusively for his living upon us. He reached his full growth in about three months, and, from that time on, simply perfected himself in the art of flying. While he lived with us, he made use of only two sounds: one, resembling a hissing noise, he employed when frightened or when he wished to protest; the other, a high-pitched, short whistle, rapidly repeated, he used when he was pleased or hungry, or when he wished to attract attention.

In the fall, realizing that he might be shot if he were free about the grounds, and yet hating to shut him up, we decided to put him back in the woods where his family had lived. So, early in September, after giving; him a square meal, we released him near the place where he was hatched. He flew to a tree and began to bob his head up and down, becoming at once interested in his new surroundings, while we drove rapidly away. We have always hoped that he met with a friendly Owl who gave him all the necessary lessons in woodcraft.

The following spring, early in April, I went to the same spot. Knocking, from custom, on the trunk of a large, partially dead maple nearby, to see who might be at home, at once a Barred Owl flew out from the top.

This tree was situated ideally for its purpose, on the edge of a dense swamp, surrounded by a growth of small maples and other hard wood. Climbing to the top, I found an extensive hollow, at the bottom of which were two newly hatched Owls and one egg. The old Owl returned during my investigation and watched me with considerable interest. I went back the following week and removed the unhatched egg, which promptly exploded in my pocket, proving to my satisfaction that it would not have hatched. After that we visited the nest each week until the young birds flew away.

The remnants of food found in the nest consisted of many feathers and one large sucker. Among the feathers which could be identified with certainty, there were, I am sorry to say, those of Robins and Flickers. We could not find the remains of any quadruped in the nest, and, because of the water which partly surrounded the foot of the tree, there was no other evidence preserved as to the nature of the Owls' food.

On our visits to the nest, we always saw one old bird, and, occasionally, both. They each kept a respectful distance from us and never made any effort to defend their home. Because of a gang of Crows, who had one or two nests nearby, the Owls were very wary of showing themselves. On two or three of our visits, they were seen, and what a hazing they received from their black neighbors! This certainly is one good reason that Owls have for keeping so shady in the daytime.

The third spring following our introduction, the Owls were back at the same stand in the broken maple. I well remember with what acute interest we ranged ourselves about the tree for a good view of our friends, if by chance they might be at home. True enough, at the first knock, out the old lady came, with little, if any, hurry, just as if only a week had passed since we last saw her, while really a year had gone by since we had shooed her away from her crop of owlets. This year, the third since we had found the Owl family, two eggs were laid and two Owls were successfully raised.

The fourth year, back we went to the same spot, but the Owls had not returned; nor, much to my regret, have they done so since that time.

The question might be asked, why do we speak of these Owls as if they were one family, returning year after year? In reply, it must be admitted that this fact cannot be proven, though it seems reasonable to suppose that it was the same family. On the other hand, it cannot be dis-proven. Doubtless, most observers have known particular spots where, in the proper season, the hoo! hoo! of the Barred Owl is heard year after year; and, even if the nesting-site is not known, the locality is looked upon as the home of a single pair of birds.

Our own Owl family has either moved away or else has fallen victim to the many people always willing to "try a shot," as they say, at almost any bird, but, particularly, at one as large as a Barred Owl. The old maple, which had stood so many years, and, apparently, had furnished shelter to many birds and animals long before I found it, is now gone; succumbing, as many another home tree has done, to the so-called improvements, commended by so many and, unfortunately, regretted by only a few.

Barred Owl, Bellingham, Washington State, 26 July 2016; Deborah Allen

An Owl Tragedy. Early in April, 1906, I made my first trip of the season to the home of a pair of Barred Owls which I had been in the habit of visiting each spring for several years. The Owls nested in the hollow top of a dead pin oak stub about thirty feet from the ground. The hole was open and unsheltered at the top, and its floor was about two feet below the entrance.

Upon reaching the familiar tree, I rapped upon the trunk, expecting to see the big Owl fly out as usual. Nothing happened, however, so I climbed to the nest. As I neared it the clicking of an Owl's bill reached my ear. Upon looking into the hole, I was taken aback to see it closed by a heavy cake of ice a few inches below the top, and it did not take long to guess what had happened. Two or three days before there had been a snow-storm. and the old Owl, keeping her eggs warm, had been covered by the falling snow. The sleet and subsequent cold had converted this into ice, which had frozen so closely around several projections on the walls of the hole as to resist all the Owl's attempt to break through.

In the center of the ice-cake was an opening little more than an inch square, and through this hole I could see the Owl. Her head was pressed against the center of the disk of ice, and this had resulted in melting the hole through the thinnest part. It took but a few minutes to break and remove the ice, but it is no wonder that the Owl had been unable to do so, as it was from three to four inches thick around the edge. The poor bird presented a most pitiable appearance, her bedraggled feathers hanging in wet, stringy manes, with lumps of ice adhering to parts of the plumage. I pulled her from the hole, for she was so stiff and weak as to be unable to fly. I succeeded in greatly improving at least her appearance by drying and smoothing her plumage, and left her sitting in an apparently dazed condition in a cedar tree not far from the nest.

Before I left, her mate was observed flying about among the large oaks nearby, but he did not go to the nest. Whether the Owl recovered or not I do not know, but this year (1907) the old hole was found to be unoccupied when I paid it my annual visit. It may be well to add that in her struggles to escape the imprisoned Owl had broken her eggs into small fragments. Also that a feather on the ice-cake showed that her mate had visited the nest while she was entombed within.

W. DeW. MILLER, Plainfield, N. J.

Barred Owl, 5 November 2020 on our owl walk - very close!

Photo by Adam Bagun

A Big Owl Night [1956]

The night of December 8, 1956 was warm with occasional light drizzle, and so many owls were calling that we recorded in the New York City Region all the regular ones of the northeastern United States in 24 hours. All localities are in southwestern Long Island, except Grassy Sprain (Westchester Co.) and Bronx Botanical Garden (Bronx Co.)

Barn Owl. Flushed from a pine grove at Cedar Beach in the late afternoon.

Screech Owl. Birds responded to imitations at Lawrence and Bronx Botanical Garden.

Great Horned Owl. Heard at Grassy Sprain.

Snowy Owl. Seen at dusk on a snow fence at Gilgo [Long Island]. It was holding its wings out to the side in a drooping position.

Barred Owl. Heard at Grassy Sprain [Westchester County].

Long-eared Owl. Heard at Lawrence [Long Island].

Short-eared Owl. Two flushed at Spring Creek [Queens] in daylight on December 9.

Saw-whet Owl. One flushed from a pine grove at Cedar Beach [Long Island] in late afternoon; later, while trying to whistle up Screech Owls at Lawrence and Bronx Botanical Garden, we received immediate responses, but the birds upon close examination were found to be Saw-whet Owls. Their downscale whinnying seemed slightly weaker and higher than a Screech Owl’s, and ended in a grunt.

Carleton recalled having whistled a Saw-whet Owl into view a few feet away at Westport, N. Y. on October 24, 1937 which gave a similar call. We wonder how many times these calls have been mistaken for those of Screech Owls.

Paul A. Buckley, Geoffrey Carleton, Peter W. Post and Robert L. Scully

Barred Owl???, subway tracks of #5 Lexington Avenue Express train at

Pelham Parkway Station in the Bronx, April 2013

In Brooklyn and Manhattan, Owl Watchers May Have Their Day

3 February 2012

If owls represent wisdom, as folklore dictates, then perhaps Brooklyn and Manhattan are no place for sages.

The great horned owl, one of the largest and most powerful raptors in North America, has not successfully nested in either borough since records started being kept over 100 years ago.

But this year, two pairs have raised hopes among birders, exhibiting pre-nesting behavior — roosting together, mostly — in Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan.

In fact, the great horned owl population across New York City is slowly expanding, though exact numbers are difficult to come by because the birds are so good at hiding, said Bob DeCandido, otherwise known as Birding Bob,” who leads birdwatching walks throughout the city.

Great horned owls – just one New York animal species among many enjoying an urban resurgence – prefer big trees, so their habitat has increased as the woodlands in the city’s parks have grown older. They also have plenty of food to eat, like rats, squirrels, rabbits and skunks.

“Old-growth woods, big tree cavities, reasonable prey base,” Dr. DeCandido said, describing the owls’ nesting needs.

Birders are hoping the great horned owl’s New York story could become a 21st century version of that of the red-tailed hawk, a similarly sized raptor that was believed to have never bred in modern-day Manhattan until the arrival of the celebrity bird Pale Male in the early 1990s.

“You could consider them almost alter egos of one another,” said Mike Feller, the chief naturalist for the city’s parks department. “One is the daytime top predator in its particular habitat and the other is the nighttime top predator.”

Dr. DeCandido said that last year there were at least a half dozen pairs in the Bronx — in Pelham Bay Park and Van Cortlandt Park and in the New York Botanical Garden — along with one in Queens’ Alley Pond Park and several on Staten Island. A nesting pair was also observed on South Brother Island just offshore from the Rikers Island prison.

In Manhattan, individual great horned owls have occasionally made brief appearances, but there have been no confirmed nests going back to the 19th century. On Dec. 17, though, an Owl Prowl in Inwood Hill Park led by Mr. Feller turned up two great horned owls hooting to each other, a sign of courtship.

On a recent Friday, just before the owls would have begun the nesting process, Mr. Feller went back but could not find them. Nonetheless, he said there was a “good possibility” that the pair in Inwood Hill Park would lay eggs this year.

The following Monday, in Pelham Bay Park, he spotted a great horned owl roughly 70 feet up in the hollow of a bare tree. The owl, about two feet tall with a white bib and large ear tufts, glared straight ahead with big, cat-like eyes before silently flying to a nearby tree branch. A few minutes later, it then took off out of sight.

“Mission accomplished,” Mr. Feller said.

In Brooklyn, a pair of great horned owls showed up about four years ago, and has since tried to nest at least twice in Green-Wood Cemetery and once in Prospect Park, where they laid eggs last year. They have not succeeded yet, local birdwatchers believe, in part because of intrusion from humans and dogs.

The Brooklyn owls have been seen roosting together again this year.

“If you find a nest, you don’t want to tell the whole birding world,” Dr. DeCandido said. “Do your best to keep it a secret until the bird fledges.”

Experts also caution against standing near nests, and against imitating the owl’s vocalizations, as this can disrupt courtship and cause stress. Young owls on the forest floor are being guarded by the parents and do not need human assistance.

“A great horned owl would probably fight off a German shepherd if that was the situation,” Mr. Feller said.

Barn owls and Eastern Screech Owls are known to nest across the city, but not in any great numbers.

These days, Dr. DeCandido noted, there are more than a half-dozen red-tailed hawk nests in Manhattan. And if they can do it, the thinking goes, the great horned owls can, too. Dr. DeCandido said he hoped to be able to show more people the glory of the owl in the years to come.

“Owls do something to people,” he said. “People are fascinated with them.”


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

Follow our Bird Sightings on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Brown Creeper, Central Park (Triplet's Bridge near Ramble) on 8 November 2020

Deborah Allen

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