I’ve been so focused on migrating warblers and other songbirds of late that I felt some surprise when outside near dark on Oct. 10 when I heard the low hoots of a feathered phantom from the woodlands on the ridge behind my home.
The hooting of a great horned owl is an instantly recognizable sound and always sends shivers traveling along the spine. The after-dark calls of this large predatory bird also got me to thinking about previous encounters with this owl, such as watching one glide silently over wetlands in Shady Valley, Tennessee, many years ago. I had traveled to the bogs in Shady Valley maintained by The Nature Conservancy in the hope of witnessing the mating displays of the American woodcock. Before those avian rituals began, a great horned owl kicked off the evening in style. I still remember the large owl passing like a dark shadow only a couple of feet over my head. The wings did not even appear to flap as the owl’s silent flight propelled the bird out of sight within seconds.
I also remembered another occasion while driving on a wet and stormy night, rounding a curve, and finding an owl, upright in the road, standing over fresh roadkill. The owl’s eyes reflected the beams of my headlights before it seized its meal in powerful talons and flew off into the darkness. I’ve always wondered if the owl had killed something in the road or came along at just the right moment to scavenge a meal after some creature had been killed by a passing car.
Owls have been around for a long time, according to “Owls: The Silent Hunters,” an episode of National Geographic’s series, “Wildlife Wonders.” The narrator for the episode reveals that the first recognizable owls first showed up in the fossil record about 40 million years ago. Since that time, owls have evolved into a fantastic, widespread and diverse group of about 135 different species. North America is home to several species, including the far-ranging great horned owl, which ranks as one of continent’s largest owls. It’s not the largest owl in North America, but it is the most widespread of the continent’s large owls. The snowy owl — popularized in J.K. Rowling’s fiction as Harry Potter’s loyal companion owl, Hedwig — is one of the largest owls in the Northern Hemisphere, bigger than such large owls as great horned owl and barred owl. The aptly named great gray owl is larger in body size than the great horned owl, but the snowy owl is heavier and more massive than either of these two contenders.
Nevertheless, the great horned owl is large enough, ferocious enough, and lethal enough to have been described by many ornithologists as a “feathered tiger of the night.” The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. They thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable owls have also learned to make their way in the suburbs and even city parks. Not by any stretch of the imagination, however, is this owl confined to the southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest.
During a September vacation many years ago to Fripp Island, South Carolina, a solitary great horned owl provided several days of entertainment for my parents and me. We took a golf cart at dusk each evening to park at a spot that offered a good view of the marshes and tidal creeks in the interior of the island. For several consecutive days, the owl flew to a perch on a piece of driftwood as the sun sank below the horizon. We would wait patiently for only a brief interval before the owl entertained us with its low hoots that resonated across the marsh.
The great horned owl is capable of taking a wide variety of prey, including many rodents ranging in size from mice and voles to rabbits and squirrels. Although various mammals form the most part of its diet, the great horned owl will kill adult birds as large as a Canada goose, wild turkey and great blue heron. This owl also preys on fish, reptiles, amphibians and even insects. The great horned owl is one of the few predators that preys regularly on skunks. Lacking a well-defined sense of smell, owls aren’t bothered in the least by the skunk’s powerful arsenal of stink. That ability to fly and glide using almost completely silent wings has given this nocturnal predator an enormous advantage over many of its prey species.
A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls, however, have been reported reaching ages of more than 30 years old.
Various Native American tribes have held owls in high respect. Dwight G. Smith, author of “Great Horned Owl,” a book in the “Wild Bird Guides” series, noted that members of the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States often hold owl feathers in their mouths to impart the owl’s ability to hunt silently onto their own hunting abilities.
The main fascination humans hold for owls rests in their mystery. Owls, being mainly nocturnal creatures, rarely cross paths with humans. These predatory birds 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 and perhaps helped establish the reputation of the “wise” owl.
Owls cannot completely rotate their heads, but they come close. Owls are flexible enough, however, 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.
Around the world, the world’s owls have earned some rather descriptive common names. Examples include pharoah eagle-owl, vermiculated fishing owl, fearful owl, pearl-spotted owlet, chestnut-backed owlet, spectacled owl, black-and-white owl, crested owl, cinereous owl, tawny owl, whiskered screech owl, greater sooty owl and desert owl.
Americans will observe Halloween on Wednesday, Oct. 31, which brings me to one other piece of owl trivia. There’s an ancient Chinese belief that owls snatch the souls of incautious people — just something I thought you might want to know if you find yourself out and about after dark on Halloween night and hear the hoots of a nearby owl.