Category Archives: Owl

Owls haunt the dark of night while flying on silent wings

Photo by Pixabay • A perched Great Horned Owl appears to blend into the structure of a tree’s limbs, offering the nocturnal predator excellent camouflage.

There’s nothing to send shivers traveling along your spine like listening to the haunting hoots of a great horned owl hidden from human eyes by the cloak of darkness. It’s no wonder that owls have also become popular motifs for the celebration of the Halloween holiday. Just remember there’s more to these creatures of the night than perhaps meets the eye. Owls may be our neighbors, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which must be why they continue to intrigue us.

While human culture has turned owls into beloved creatures, keep in mind these birds are fierce and ferocious predators. For young American crows in their nests, this owl is the stuff of their avian nightmares. It’s no wonder that crows, which no doubt witness their peers taken by the great horned owl as prey when young and helpless, grow up with an abiding hatred of this large nocturnal raptor. Flocks of adult crows form quickly when an owl is discovered at a roost during the daylight hours. With safety in numbers, the crows mercilessly hound and harry such unlucky owls.

Quite often, it does take a crow’s sharp eye to detect a motionless owl at its daytime roost. Great horned owls have a plumage of mottled grays and browns, as well as some white feathers on the chin and throat. This plumage helps them blend into their surroundings. Even when on the move, the great horned owl rarely attracts attention. They can fly in almost perfect silence on their wide wings. I know this from firsthand experience. Back in the early 2000s I visited Orchard Bog in Shady Valley in Johnson County in early spring for a chance to witness the evening display of American woodcocks from the nearby woodlands. While standing with some other birders, I noticed a large shadow moving low over the fields heading toward us. As the bird got closer, it became recognizable as a great horned owl. The owl barely diverted from its flight. In fact, it flew just over our heads, gliding silently on wide wings. I still marvel at how the owl’s wings made no noise whatsoever. The owl continued to glide over the fields until we lost it in the dusk. 

Photo by Alexas-Fotos/Pixabay • A great horned owl is capable of almost silent flight, which helps the predatory bird take prey by surprise. Many myths and superstitions surround the world’s owls, but the truth about owls is often more fascinating.

On another occasion I also witnessed how, when they want to do so, great horned owls can be absolutely silent. While vacationing on Fripp Island, South Carolina, in the 1990s, I would accompany my family members on dusk gold cart excursions. We liked to pull off the side of the road on a causeway that crossed a series of tidal creeks and marsh. On that occasion, a great horned owl flew from nearby woodlands to land on a gnarled snag that rose above the marshland vegetation. Although the owl arrived on silent wings, it soon interrupted the silence with resonant hoots that carried over the marshes. The owl returned to the same snag for two additional evenings during our vacation stay.

I’ve seen other great horned owl over the years in locations from South Carolina and Florida to Utah and Tennessee. I’ve heard many more of these large owls than I have ever been able to get into focus in my binoculars.

Here are a few other interesting facts about the great horned owl:

• This 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.

• A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls have been reported reach 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.

• Great horned owls will eat other birds. They will eat other predatory birds, as well, including ospreys, peregrine falcon and various hawks. The smaller barred owl knows to stay out of their way, too.

• The David Lynch drama “Twin Peaks,” which ran originally on ABC from April of 1990 to June of 1991, spent considerable time dwelling on the mystery that “the owls are not what they seem.” Footage of great horned owls provided a sinister, mysterious mood that fascinated viewers. The series was resurrected in 2017 on Showtime. Alas, although owls returned in the revival of the series, fans still really don’t know the truth about the owls and their importance to the fictional town of Twin Peaks.

• The Celtic people believed that owls knew the paths that led into the underworld. Perhaps that is how owls became regarded as messengers capable of crossing realms. Many Native American tribes have stories about owls delivering messages from the supernatural spirit world to our own reality. 

I align with the cultures that regard an owl as an omen of good fortune. Any time you get a chance to observe an owl, it’s a good thing. It’s not often we get to glimpse these fascinating birds as they emerge from the shadows. Celebrate any opportunity.

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As always, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com to share observations, make comments, or ask questions.

Barn owl helps kin earn ghostly reputation

Photo by Kevinsphotos by Pixabay • A barn owl flies through the darkness without any difficulty whatsoever. Special adaptations make barn owls a silent, highly efficient predator on rodents, some songbirds, and some reptiles and amphibians.

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.

Photo by skitter photos/Pixabay • Look for owls on Halloween and every other dark night.