Blake Mathys, Ph.D., Ohio Dominican University

Support provided by Columbus Audubon

Click the pictures above to go to the photographer's website

Owls have been one of my favorite groups since I first became interested in birds. They are charismatic and enthralling; any encounter with an owl is not likely to be forgotten. In 2013, I started conducting annual owl walks on our farm in Union County, giving people a chance to see these amazing birds. Owls are secretive, reclusive, and nocturnal; these characteristics can make them difficult to find and hard to study. A few years ago, I noticed that there were not very many Long-eared, Barn, or Northern Saw-whet Owls reported to the large citizen-science database known as eBird. For example, I live in Union County; I saw that there were only two eBird reports for Long-eared Owls in the entire county. I had submitted both of those reports, but had also seen Long-eared Owls in the county on two other occasions. I don't believe that my sightings are the only Long-eared Owls to ever be seen in Union County; however, I came to realize that owls, and especially rare owls, are much less likely to be reported to bird-monitoring programs like eBird. There are probably a couple of reasons for this: rare owls often attract attention, and some people don't want to make it known that they have a rare species on their property, because they don't want lots of people visiting trying to see it (in some instances, some have trespassed in the hopes of seeing owls). The second reason is related: in the past, some owls have been disturbed by the attention that they received, to the point that they've abandoned their roosts. This opinion piece in The New York Times does a good job of explaining the issues. In 2017, I found a Long-eared Owl on our property, and I had similar concerns; I allowed other people to come see it, but only at a specific time when I was home to monitor how many people were present and what was happening. I reported the sighting to eBird, but weeks later, long after the owl had left. My goal in starting the Central Ohio Owl Project (COOP) (based at Ohio Dominican University) is to better document the occurrence of wintering owls throughout Central Ohio. I want to provide a confidential place for people to report owl sightings; when data are reported by the project, it will only be done at the township or county level. Advertising will be done to solicit sightings; 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. I hope to inspire people to get out and check for owls in their local area. I will also be carrying out targeted searches in areas that seem likely to hold wintering owls. The three species on which the project is focused are considered threatened (Barn Owl) or species of special interest (Long-eared Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl) in Ohio (PDF of Ohio's Listed Species). Therefore, a better knowledge of their adundance and wintering range could prove valuable for conservation (click here for conservation impact statement). I'm also interested to compare the results with eBird, to get an idea of eBird's efficacy in documenting these rare and elusive species.

Timeline: The winter of '20-'21 was the first year of data collection. Over 1,600 owl reports were submitted to the project, and targeted searches found individuals of all three species. I am continuing to solicit sightings.

Geographic Coverage: I'm accepting owl reports from any part of Ohio, although the project is focused on Hardin, Marion, Morrow, Knox, Licking, Fairfield, Pickaway, Madison, Franklin, Clark, Champaign, Logan, Union, and Delaware Counties.

Some Background Information about Owls in Ohio

There are eight species of owls that can be found in Ohio every year. Three of these are found in most parts of the state and are relatively common: Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl. These are the species most likely to be encountered, and are found in Ohio year-round. Snowy Owls and Short-eared Owls occur primarily in the winter, and tend to be found in open areas (e.g., Snowy Owls like airports and Short-eared Owls prefer large grassy areas). These two species are relatively likely to be seen during daylight (especially dawn and dusk in the case of Short-eared Owls), and therefore their presence can be more easily detected. The final three species (the focus of this project) are harder to find: they are almost completely nocturnal, and they usually choose roost sites that hide them well. Long-eared Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls like to roost in thick vegetation; they are often found in evergreen trees, spending the day sleeping, only coming out to hunt under the cover of darkness. Barn Owls are often found in buildings; barns, silos, and other structures are used, as well as evergreen trees. Even when owls aren't seen, their presence can often be inferred by the finding of owl pellets (undigestible parts that owls regurgitate) below a roost site.

Questions? See my main website (BlakeMathys.com) or email me at mathysb@ohiodominican.edu.