Category Archives: Owls

Mysterious owl retains a low profile even during Halloween season

Photo by jeanvdmeulen/Pixabay.com • The barn owl’s heart-shaped face helps this bird, which is also known by such names as death owl, ghost owl, and hobgoblin owl, stand out from the other owls that share the domain of night.

With common names such as cave owl, death owl, ghost owl, night owl and hobgoblin owl, the nocturnal hunter more widely known as the barn owl provides a fitting focus for exploration as the calendar counts down toward Halloween.

Barn owls lurk in the shadows of night, but most people would never know it unless they happen to hear some of the spine-tingling vocalizations produced by this poorly known predatory bird. Shiver-inducing shrieks and screams quite capable of piercing the veil of darkness are often produced by the barn owl. This owl doesn’t utter loud hoots like the great horned owl. Instead, the call of the barn owl is not likely one to be soon forgotten because of its raspy, nails-on-the-chalkboard nature. A hearer could easily be misled into misinterpreting the shrill vocalizations as originating from something far more ghoulish.

According to the website for the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Montana, barn owls are the most widely distributed owl in the world, and they may be one of the most common, as well. In Montana, where ORI is located, barn owls observations are rather sparse. ORI has documented 12 barn owl nests and made numerous observations in the last 12 years, according to its website. Likewise, the barn owl is not too often observed in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Photo by dannymoore1973/Pixabay.com A barn owl’s wings and feathers provide almost silent flight for this efficient predatory bird.

The barn owl is often associated with rural, agricultural areas, which is one reason they can often be found in old barns, sheds and farm silos. However, the first barn owl I ever saw in the wild was living beneath the eaves of a building on the campus of Mountain Home Veterans Administration in Johnson City, Tennessee, within walking distance of commercial buildings and the campus of East Tennessee State University.

The barn owl has no close relatives among the other owls found in the region. The barn owl is in its own unique family known as Tytonidae. The family name comes from a Greek word, Tuto, which translates as “night owl.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern Screech Owl, pictured, is considered a member of the family called Strigidae, which consists of the owls described as “typical owls” by experts.

Other owls in our region — great horned owl, barred owl, Eastern screech-owl, short-eared owl— belong to a family called Strigidae, which are often described as “typical owls” by ornithologists and other experts.

The barn owl is one of nature’s most perfect predators. Among animals tested by scientists, the barn owl shows an almost uncanny ability to detect prey animals by sound alone. Prey, which is often small voles or other rodents, often doesn’t know of the danger until it’s too late. The structure of the barn owl’s wings and feathers is such that these predatory birds can fly through the darkness in almost perfect silence.

Early American painter John James Audubon captured this dynamic scene of barn owls with a capture chipmunk.

There’s a heavy cost that the owl must pay for these special adaptations. According to the Barn Owl Trust, an organization founded in 1988 in the United Kingdom to conserve one of the most beautiful birds on Earth, a barn owl’s specially adapted feathers are not particularly waterproof. In addition, barn owls are unable to store a lot of body fat. The Trust’s website notes that barn owls are unable to hunt in heavy rain and are particularly prone to starvation during prolonged periods of severe weather and/or prey shortage.

Much myth and legend have arisen around the world’s owls, including the barn owl. A native tribe in California known as the Newuks believed that warriors who proved courageous and virtuous became great horned owls after death. Men who practiced wicked ways, however, were thought to become barn owls.

This owl with the white heart-shaped face has long spooked humans. The bird’s head and upper body typically vary between pale brown and various shade of gray. Especially in flight, the barn owl can look rather pale.

The barn owl is the most widespread terrestrial bird species in the world, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. In addition to its various spooky common names, barn owls are also known by such descriptive monikers as monkey-faced owl, silver owl and golden owl. Some other common names include church owl and steeple owl. This owl acquired this name for its habit of utilizing steeples or bell towers in churches as roosting locations when barns or caves were lacking.

For a bird so closely associated with people and their dwellings and related structures, the barn owl remains an enigma to many. YouTube offers a variety of videos that showcase the creepy vocalizations of barn owls. Familiarize yourself with their calls, and you’ll be more likely to distinguish a barn owl calling after dark from the more sinister specters on the prowl this Halloween.

To learn more about barn owls or to make a contribution toward their conservation, visit www.barnowltrust.org.uk

Photo by mochawalk/Pixabay.com • A barn owl gives a penetrating stare to the camera.

Great horned owl reigns as ‘feathered tiger of the night’ among birds

 

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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.

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.

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Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

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.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A captive snowy owl educates the public about owls and some of the perils they face in an environment shared by humans.

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.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A great horned owl perches on a post during its part in a wild bird show at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

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.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A great horned owl is shown on the nest with one of her chicks.

Dark reputation of world’s owls is being rehabilitated as people learn more about them and their habits

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A great horned owl perches on a post during its part in a wild bird show at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

As I sit at my computer working on this week’s post, I can hear the low, sonorous call of a great horned owl from the woods located behind my house. The great horned owl is one of two species I often hear near my home. In addition, I regularly hear the much smaller Eastern screech-owl calling from the same woods. The intervals around dusk and dawn are popular times for owls to produce their eerie calls. At present, there’s a pair of great horned owls living in the woods near my home. If I hear one, I usually hear the other. These large owls call to each other to communicate their whereabouts. Perhaps it helps them avoid surprise encounters with each other once they begin hunting after the sun sets.

The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. These large owls thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable predatory birds have also learned to survive in the suburbs and even city parks. While quite at home in the region, the great horned owl is not 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. If nothing else, the great horned owl has shown amazing resilience and adaptability.

With about 200 different species, the world’s owls form an order known as Strigiformes. Characteristics that define owls include a mostly solitary and nocturnal existence. These predatory birds are also typified by such physical traits as an upright stance, binocular vision, exceptional hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Barred Owl blends with the background in this photo taken of a wild owl at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

The smallest owl — weighing as little as an ounce and measuring a mere five inches) — is the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi). To give you some perspective, that DVD of your favorite movie also weighs about an ounce. The common house sparrow that flocks in shopping center parking lots is slightly bigger than this tiny owl. According to the website, The Owl Page, the elf owl was originally known as Whitney’s Owl. The scientific name whitneyi is a Latinized word formed from the last name of Josiah Dwight Whitney, a prominent American geologist for whom the diminutive owl was named. Whitney was considered the foremost authority of his day on the economic geology of the United States. In addition to having a tiny owl named in his honor, Whitney’s name graces Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, and the Whitney Glacier, which was the first confirmed glacier in the United States.

The miniature elf owl is every bit the predator, but its prey generally consists of various insects as well as such desert dwellers as scorpions and spiders. Despite the extremes of the environment in which it lives, the elf owl does just fine. It prefers areas offering plenty of saguaro cactus. Cavities in these iconic desert plants provide roosting and nesting locations for this tiny owl. The elf owl range from the southwest regions of the United States to Central Mexico and Baja California. Unfortunately, the numbers of this owl in Texas and California have declined in recent times.33ecc634b6bf2f56939e0c28a1e0c6c0

To find the world’s largest owl, head to the other side of the world to the islands of Japan, as well as remote areas of Siberia, Manchuria and Korea. With a body comparable in size to that of a young child and a wingspan wider than six feet, the Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) earns its distinction as the largest owl in the world. The fish owls are part of a larger grouping of birds known as eagle owls, which specialize in hunting in habitats found along large rivers. Female Blakiston’s fish owls are larger than males, and a large female can weigh as much as 10 pounds and attain a 6.5-foot wingspan. This big owl was named after English naturalist Thomas Blakiston (1832-1891) who found the first specimen on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in 1883. According to Paul Frost of The Raptor Foundation, this owl is sacred to the Ainu, a native people residing on Hokkaidu. The Ainu refer to this owl as “kotan kor kamuy,” which means “god of the village” or “god who defends the village”.

While many culture view owls with misgivings, often associating their nocturnal tendencies with more sinister motives, that’s not always the case. For instance, the Japanese people believe that owls bring good fortune. In addition, owls offer protection from suffering. Other cultures have feared and reviled owls. The ancient Romans share much of the blame for the negative image owls are still overcoming. Romans considered owls as harbingers of death, defeat and other disasters. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, Romans advised that the offending owl should be killed and nailed to a door. Such a bloodthirsty solution leads me to think that owls had more to fear from Romans than Romans had to fear from them.

The need for common names for the 200 species of owls has resulted in some creative monikers. Some of the most descriptive common names for some of the world’s owls include ashy-faced barn owl, barking owl, brown owl, cuckoo owlet, fearful owl, giant eagle owl, Christmas Island hawk owl, snowy owl, laughing owl, rufous owl, tawny-bellied screech owl, winking owl, and spotted wood owl.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / A Great Horned Owl is shown on the nest with one of her chicks.

Many relatives of the great horned owl have proven equally adaptive, carving out niches for themselves in habitats as diverse as jungles, deserts and the frozen tundra. Indeed, the great horned owl has many relatives living in our region. The Eastern screech owl is a tiny cousin, but some other large owls that live in the area include the barred owl and the barn owl. More rare to the region are visits by such owls as the short-eared owl and the long-eared owl. There’s even another tiny relative — the Northern saw whet owl — that is rarely heard and even more seldom seen.

Regardless of the species, the activities of owls are invariably cloaked in darkness. Despite electric lights and other trappings of civilization, people still delight in the shivers that result from hearing the hoots of an owl. It’s truly no surprise that owls have become popular motifs in the weeks leading up to our recent celebration of the Halloween holiday. Owls may live alongside us, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which consists of all the spooky things that go bump in the night.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

Tremulous call of Eastern screech-owl baffles couple

Photo by Bryan Stevens An Eastern Screech-Owl at rest in a roosting hole in a large sycamore tree.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
An Eastern Screech-Owl at rest in a roosting hole in a large sycamore tree.

I received a recent email from Lewis Chapman seeking help in solving the identity of a nocturnal caller. Chapman and his wife moved to Laurel Bloomery in Johnson County, Tennessee, in late June.

“Shortly after we arrived we started hearing a strange night bird call that could best be described as an eerie winnowing,” he wrote in his email. After the couple conducted some Internet research into the mysterious after-hours vocalist, his wife suggested the caller might be a snipe.

As mentioned in previous columns, the snipe is a real bird despite its reputation as a mythical creature thanks to the rural tradition of the “snipe hunt.” While the calling bird at their home did remind them of a Wilson’s snipe, they were not convinced.

“Is this the right time of year to be hearing one in our area?” Lewis asked in his email. “Is there another bird that makes this kind of winnowing?” Both of his astute questions helped me narrow the possibilities.

In my reply, I did inform Lewis that the Wilson’s snipe, as well as the closely related American woodcock, make their home in the region. The summer season, however, isn’t the best time of year to hear either of these relatively elusive shorebirds. These birds are most vocal at the peak of their breeding season, which usually occurs much earlier in the year.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                     Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, is part of an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina that teaches audiences some fascinating information about native wildlife. For instance, despite her small size, Lucy is an adult owl, not a baby.

 

It was his second question, especially the description of the “winnowing” sound, that got me thinking in an entirely different direction. It also helped that I’ve heard some of these small, nocturnal vocalists at my own home in recent weeks. I suggested that the Chapmans get online and look up the song and other vocalizations of the Eastern Screech-owl.

An adult Eastern screech-owl is usually only between six and nine inches in length. Many people upon first seeing a screech-owl assume it’s a baby owl. On a recent South Carolina trip I made several visits to Brookgreen Gardens near Pawleys Island. On several of these visits I attended the daily educational programs conducted by the zoo staff at the gardens that are designed to introduce visitors to various examples of native wildlife. The presenter usually introduced a couple of animals to the audience. On several occasions, the show featured birds of prey, including hawks and owls.

Two of the shows featured Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, and people in the audience invariably asked if she was a baby owl. To their astonishment, they learned that Lucy was an adult screech-owl and unlikely to grow any bigger. There are larger owls in our region, including the great horned owl and barred owl. Lucy and her kin must avoid these much larger owls, which would have no hesitation at trying to make a meal of the much smaller owl.

Because of their small size, screech-owls prey on some comparatively small creatures, including insects, small rodents, amphibians and reptiles. The Eastern screech-owl is also a cavity-nesting bird and will accept bird boxes provided by humans so long as the box’s entrance hole is customized to their size.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      An Eastern Screech-owl perches among some hemlock branches.

The screech-owl is probably the owl most likely to encounter human beings. It’s an adaptable little feathered predator, fully as at home in the backyard and garden as it is in parks and woodlands. In addition to nesting in cavities, this owl roosts in them during the daytime hours. Look for roosting screech-owls in knotholes of trees or in unoccupied wood duck boxes. Although they come in two color phases — red and gray — both variations are quite capable of camouflage. When perched or roosting, these small owls blend remarkably with their surroundings.

The Eastern screech owl also produces a variety of odd wails and other vocalizations including a distinctive, trembling “whinny” call that is often made when the owl feels curious or alarmed. It’s a wavering, haunting call that is made after dark, most often at the hours closer to dawn and dusk. Imitating the call of a screech-owl or playing a recording is also a trick for getting some shy songbirds to show themselves. Screech-owls are unwelcome neighbors among songbirds, which will flock to this owl’s call and band together to “mob” the predator and try to convince it to depart the immediate area.

In addition to the Eastern screech-owl, the United States is also home to several other small owls, including Western screech-owl, Northern pygmy-owl, Northern saw-whet owl, flammulated owl and elf owl.

After I pointed to the screech-owl as the identity of the unseen caller at the Chapman home, I did receive another email from Lewis. My suggestion of the screech-owl proved correct. “It’s fun having the Eastern screech-owl in our woods,” he wrote back. “It has a beautiful call and most nights it does it for quite awhile.”

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted a family of Eastern Screech-owls.

Screech-owls do make good neighbors. Their prey preferences remove many nuisance insects and rodents from the habitat they share with humans as well as other wildlife. If you’re hearing an odd, winnowing call from the edge of the woods at your own home, there’s a good chance that you have one of these small owls as a neighbor.

Since moving to Laurel Bloomery, the Chapmans have already seen many great backyard birds, including indigo bunting, great crested flycatcher, ruby-throated hummingbird, house wren, black-and-white warbler, pileated woodpecker and chipping sparrow. Now they can also add Eastern screech-owl to the list. Who knows? They may some day also add a Wilson’s snipe to their yard list of birds.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Great horned owls reign as ‘tigers of the night’

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Dave Menke                          A Great Horned Owl surveys its woodland domain.

As I sit at my desk on Halloween night to make this blog post, I’ve just come indoors after listening to the resident pair of great horned owls. For much of October, I’ve been treated to dusk serenades by this pair of owls that have taken up residence in the woodlands around my home.

These large owls begin producing their low, deep hoots about a half hour before dusk and continue throughout the night. Activity usually increases again an hour or so before sunrise. The call of this owl has been described as a deep, stuttering series of four to five hoots. It should come as no surprise that “hoot owl” is a common nickname for the very vocal great horned owl.
In addition to great horned owls, several other species of owls reside in the region, including Eastern screech-owl, barred owl, and barn 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 and short-eared owl.

Painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes depicting a great horned owl with one of its primary prey species, a snowshoe hare.

Painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes depicting a great horned owl with one of its primary prey species, a snowshoe hare.

I’ve heard some experts suggest that the smaller Eastern screech-owl will try to avoid the territory of its much larger relative. That does strike me as a sensible precaution, but I’ve been hearing the wailing, trembling calls of screech owls in addition to the hoots of the great horned owls. Perhaps they’ve struck up an uneasy truce.

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 this bird another nickname — “Tiger of the Night.”

Although rabbits are its most common prey, this large owl is not a finicky predator. The great horned owl has been known to capture and consume everything from armadillos and muskrats to geese 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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                This Great Horned Owl is a non-releasable bird that is part of a raptor program at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

All owls are extremely beneficial predators, and the great horned owl is no exception. 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.

The great horned owl, known scientifically as Bubo virginianus, is an exceptional bird for many reasons. 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. Its eyes are extremely large, even for an owl, in relation to the size of the owl’s brain as well as overall body size. This owl’s eyes are just slightly smaller than the eyes of a human being and rank proportionately among the largest eyes of all terrestrial vertebrates. Great horned owls, and other owls in the Bubo genus, are know for their formidable talons. Once these talons close on prey, the owl is capable of exerting a pressure of about 300 pounds per square inch.

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Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this part of Great Horned Owls.

In common with many hawks, the female great horned owl is larger than her male counterpart. These owls begin nesting early in the year, usually in February and March. Nest-building activity in January, however, is not unheard of. Great horned owls often take possession of a previous year’s nest built by such birds as red-tailed hawks, bald eagle nests, crows and herons. Some great horned owls will simply claim a cliff ledge for a nesting site.

Early naturalists in North America were duly impressed by the great horned owl. John James Audubon, the early American painter best known for his “Birds of America,” studied this owl around his frontier home in Kentucky. He also wrote about the great horned owl in a journal he kept during a boat trip on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1820-21.

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.

The genus of Bubo owls consists of some large, powerful species, including Eurasian eagle-owl, one of the largest species of owl in the world, as well as snowy owl, pharaoh eagle-owl, spot-bellied eagle-owl and the lesser horned owl of South America.

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, PA Photo: Susan Rachlin USFWS

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Susan Rachlin                   A Great Horned Owl locks its fearsome stare onto something at  John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Pennsylvania.

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.

I’ve seen great horned owls in Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina and Utah in environments ranging from coastal wetlands to arid grasslands and wooded mountain slopes. I can personally confirm how eerily silent these large, powerful winged predators are as they glide through the air. I was once shocked when a large great horned owl materialized as if from thin air as I stood at the edge of an extensive wetlands in Shady Valley, Tennessee. Not a single feather rustled as the owl flew over my head and soon disappeared like a silent shadow into the vast wetland.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Owls perfectly suited to reign once the sun sets

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.”

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service The tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl nests on several of the region's higher mountains.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl nests on several of the region’s higher mountains.

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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens An Eastern Screech-Owl perches in the branches of an Eastern hemlock.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
An Eastern Screech-Owl perches in the branches of an Eastern hemlock.

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.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A Great Horned Owl surveys the audience during a raptor show at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga.

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.

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Early naturalist John James Audubon painted this family of Eastern Screech-Owls.

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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Barred Owl rests on a perch during an educational raptor program offered at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Barred Owl rests on a perch during an educational raptor program offered at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga.

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.

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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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Burrowing Owl photographed in 2006 at Antelope Island State Park in Utah.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Burrowing Owl photographed in 2006 at Antelope Island State Park in Utah.

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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens An Eastern Screech-Owl at rest in a roosting hole in a large sycamore tree.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
An Eastern Screech-Owl at rest in a roosting hole in a large sycamore tree.