Halloween is drawing closer, and it’s definitely the one night of the year that we become acutely aware of things that go bump in the night.
While goblins and ghouls can be dismissed as mere apparitions of the imagination, some real-life feathered phantoms do roam the darkness, perhaps even in your own backyard. If so, you are more likely to have heard them than to have seen them.
If you do hear anything unusual Halloween night, chances are the sounds may have been produced by an owl.
Several species of owl reside in Northeast Tennessee, including the Eastern screech-owl, the barred owl, the great horned owl and the barn owl. A fifth owl, the tiny Northern saw-whet owl, can be found at some high-elevation locations, including Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County. A few other owls have made sporadic appearances in the region, including long-eared owl, short-eared owl and even snowy owl.
The barn owl is an owl that has adapted its ways to co-exist with humans. Even its common name refers to the fact that these owls will roost and nest in barns and other structures. They are also known to select natural tree cavities, caves and other human structures, including recesses build into sports stadiums and arenas. My most recent sightings of barn owls took place at a grain silo in Sullivan County a few years ago, a large barn located on Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006 and under the eaves of the old theatre on the campus of the Mountain Home Veterans Administration near East Tennessee State University back in 2000. These sporadic sightings are testimony to the overall elusive nature of this owl.
I was surprised to learn during my background research that the barn owl is the most widely distributed species of owl as well as one of the most widespread birds on the planet. This owl is also referred to as common barn owl, to distinguish it from other species in the barn-owl family Tytonidae. Owls in this family comprise one of two main lineages of living owls, the other being the typical owls in the Strigidae family. The barn owl, known by the scientific name, Tyto alba, is found almost worldwide except in polar and desert regions, Asia north of the Alpide belt, most of Indonesia, and the Pacific islands.
The genus name for this owl is Tyto, a variation of the ancient Greek word, “tutō,” which meant “owl.” The barn owl family, Tytonidae, consists of true barn owls, as well as grass owls and masked owls.
All owls are carnivores, but the barn owl specializes on rodents more than many of its kin. However, this owl will also eat other birds and insects.
Because of their pale plumage and nocturnal habits, barn owls have been saddled with such common names as demon owl, death owl, night owl and ghost owl.
Other common names include rat owl, inspired by one of its major prey items, and barnyard owl and church owl, which are two haunts where these owls often roost or perch. I also liked the name scritch owl and hissing owl, which were acquired because of vocalizations from this bird.
Barn owls have several adaptations that allow them to hunt in complete darkness. These owls have excellent hearing, allowing them to pinpoint prey even when the absence of light renders vision useless. The characteristic facial disc of the barn owl helps channel sounds toward the bird’s ears.
Even the feathers of owls have adapted to the need to stalk wary prey without revealing their presence. Specialized feathers permit owls to fly almost silently. Their feathers absorb flight noises and even alter air turbulence to keep the flight smooth and quiet. Most prey never suspect the owl’s approach until it’s far too late.
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.
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.
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 back in the 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. The sorcerer Merlin was always shown with an owl on his shoulder. During the Middle Ages owls became symbols of learning and intelligence. The Greeks didn’t fear owls as did the Romans. In fact, the owl was the sacred mascot of the Greek goddess Athena.
There’s one more owl-related myth I forgot to mention. There is 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.