It was a frosty morning on Simerly Creek on Oct. 20, and the sunrise had given a pink hue to some overhead clouds for a nice enhancement of the morning. From the wooded hollow across the road, I heard a very vocal Eastern Screech-Owl greeting the day with trembling wails. Although Eastern Screech-Owls are normally nocturnal, they can be most active within a couple of hours of both sunset and sunrise. Although I was headed to work, perhaps this particular owl was, in its own way, sending a message of “Good night and sleep tight.”
The calling owl also reminded me that we’ll celebrate Halloween later this week. It’s the one night of the year that we become acutely aware of things that go bump in the night. Of course, what you must also take into consideration are those nocturnal birds that glide through the darkness on nearly silent wings.
Ghouls and goblins can be dismissed as mere apparitions of the imagination. Some real-life feathered phantoms, however, do roam the darkness, perhaps even in your own backyard. Chances are, you have more likely heard them rather than to have seen them.
If you do happen to hear anything slightly unusual this coming Halloween night, listen carefully. It’s a safe bet that the sound — whether it’s a deep, resonant hoot or a trembling wail — might just be produced by an owl.
Several species of owls reside in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, including Eastern screech-owl, barred owl, barn owl and great horned owl. A fifth owl, the tiny Northern saw-whet owl, can be found at some high-elevation locations. A few other owls have made sporadic appearances in the region, including long-eared owl, short-eared owl and even snowy owl.
The most common — and two of my favorites — are the large great horned owl and the small Eastern screech-owl.
The great horned owl is widespread in the Americas and is one of the more frequently encountered owls in the region. A fearsome nocturnal predator, the great horned owl has rightly earned the name “Tiger of the Night.”
Although rabbits are its most common prey, this large owl is not a finicky predator. This owl has been known to capture and consume everything from armadillos and muskrats to great blue herons and young American alligators. They will also prey on various amphibians, fish, crustaceans and even insects. The great horned owl is also known to prey on smaller owls, which includes almost all of the other owls found in the region.
All owls are extremely beneficial predators. The tiny Eastern screech-owl feeds on mice, insects, lizards, crayfish and the occasional bird. If not for owls and other predators, prey species — whether rodents or insects — would multiply beyond the means of the environment to support them. Anyone facing the problem of mice and rats seeking an easier living inside a human home can appreciate the role played by predatory owls.
Although the Eastern screech-owl’s only about 10 inches long, it has a wingspan of 20 to 24 inches. By comparison, the great horned owl is about 25 inches long with an equally impressive wingspan of between three and five feet. The structure of an owl’s feathers are what enables these winged predators to fly silently through the shadows.
Many species of owls have proven capable of thriving even in the face of human alteration of the environment. Both the great horned owl and the Eastern screech-owl are known to hunt in both rural and urban areas. They also can make a home in a suburban park. In fact, the great horned owl has proven extremely adaptable and can be found in such varied habitats as forests, swamps and deserts.
For the average person the term “owl” is representative of what is actually an extremely diverse family of birds. Worldwide, there are about 220 species of owls varying in size and habits.
In North America owls range in size from such tiny species as the sparrow-sized elf owl of the southwestern United States to the continent-ranging great horned owl. Humans have come up with some descriptive names for various owls around the world. A sampling of these names includes fearful owl, pharaoh eagle-owl, collared owlet, pearl-spotted owlet, least pygmy-owl, red-chested owlet, buff-fronted owl, Stygian owl, vermiculated fishing-owl, black-and-white owl, bare-legged owl, maned owl, bearded screech-owl, spectacled owl and golden-masked owl.
Most people become aware of the presence of an owl by hearing its call. Not all owls, however, produce a “who who” call. For instance, the Eastern screech-owl’s calls are haunting, shivering wails. The deep hoots of a great horned owl are incredibly impressive. The barred owl boasts quite a vocabulary of calls, including hoots, cackles and chilling screams.
I’ve seen great horned owls in Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina and Utah in environments ranging from woodlands to coastal wetlands. This owl is one of the first birds to nest each year, starting as early as late January and early February.
Owls, according to Linda Spencer, author of “Knock on Wood: A Serendipitous Selection of Superstitions,” have inspired a mixed bag of superstitions ever since humans stood up. Owls have long been associated with the forces of both good and evil. The “hoot” or call of an owl is believed by people of many cultures to foretell death. There are some interesting ways to counter the ominous hoot of an owl, according to Spencer. Means of warding off the evil owl power include putting irons in your fire, throwing salt, pepper and vinegar on the fire, tying a knot or taking one’s clothes off, turning them inside out and putting them back on.
According to Laura Martin, author of “The Folklore of Birds,” one of the earliest human drawings depicting owls dates back to the early Paleolithic period. The scene is of a family of snowy owls painted on a cave wall in France.
Owls have also entered the culture as symbols of wisdom and goodness. The wise old owl, Martin writes, dates back to the time of King Arthur. Martin also notes that the sorcerer Merlin was always shown with an owl on his shoulder. She also explains that during the Middle Ages owls became symbols of learning and intelligence. Martin also reveals that Greeks didn’t fear owls as did the Romans. In fact, the owl was the sacred mascot of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena.
She also delves into owl lore in Japan, where pictures and figures of owls are placed in homes to ward off famine or epidemics. There is some logic to this practice since owls can help prevent such disasters by keeping rodents in check. As well as being carriers of disease, rodents can deplete stores of grain.
The main fascination humans hold for owls rests in their mystery. Owls, as mainly nocturnal creatures, rarely cross paths with us.
Owls have many adaptations that help them stake out their claim on the night hours. Owls possess large eyes with binocular vision and extremely accurate depth perception — which also make them seem more expressive to human observers.
Owls cannot completely rotate their heads, but they come close. Owls are flexible enough to be able to turn their heads in a 270-degree arc, or three-quarters of the way around.
Owls have keen hearing to go with their excellent eyesight. In fact, owls don’t even need to see their prey to capture it. Tests with barn owls in total darkness have shown that they are capable of catching mice by hearing alone. An owl’s prominent facial disk directs sounds toward their ears. The “ear tufts” on the great horned owl and some other relatives are ornamental feathers, and not actual ears.
There’s one more owl-related myth I forgot to mention. There’s a Chinese belief that owls snatch the souls of unwary people — just something you should know if you are out and about after dark on Halloween night.