Tag Archives: Birdwatching

Sounds of spring grow more varied as season advances

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance. In spring, male towhees become persistent singers. Listen for their “drink-your-tea” song as the males perch on elevated branches and twigs.

The sounds of spring surround us from sunrise to sunset with much of this seasonal chorus being provided by our feathered friends, the birds. In these weird weeks in need of something distracting, I’ve been letting nature’s sounds, as well as sights, provide some measure of relief from stressful headlines and anxious thoughts.

The mornings around my home often begin with a loud, insistent “Peter! Peter! Peter!” uttered from the woods or even just outside my bedroom window. Male tufted titmice, little gray relatives of chickadees with a distinctive crest and large, dark eyes, sing their urgent “Peter! Peter! Peter!” as a constant refrain in their efforts to attract mates now that they feel spring in their blood.

A series of rat-a-tat-tats echoes from deeper in the woods as woodpeckers tap their sturdy bills against the trunks of trees. The three most common woodpeckers at my home are red-bellied, downy, and pileated, and they all have their own unique vocalizations, as well.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Woodpeckers not only vocalize, they also add to the spring cacophony by drumming against the trunks of trees.

The pileated woodpecker produces clear, far-carrying resonant piping sounds that can last for a few seconds each blast. The much smaller downy woodpecker produces a whinny of high-pitched notes that descend in pitch toward their conclusion. The red-bellied call is probably the one that stands out the most. The call’s a harsh, rolling “Churr, churr, churr” given almost like an expression of exasperation as they circle tree trunks and explore branches.

Since their return earlier this month, the resident red-winged blackbirds are often some of the earliest singers these days. According to the website All About Birds, the male red-winged blackbird’s “conk-la-ree!” is a classic sound of wetlands across the continent of North America. According to the website, the one-second song starts with an abrupt note that transforms quickly into a musical trill.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

Some birds helpfully introduce themselves with a song that repeats their name. One such common bird is the Eastern phoebe. In recent weeks, a pair has been checking out the rafters of my garage for potential nest sites. The male spends much of the day producing his strident “fee-bee” call, which is a perfect phonetic rendition of the bird’s common name.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Eastern Phoebe’s song is a repetitive rendition of its own name — “fee-bee” — given over and over.

Then there’s one of my favorite songs of spring, which is produced by the Eastern towhee, which is also known by such common names as “ground robin” and “swamp robin.” These birds, which are actually a species of sparrow, also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite accurately, as “drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” of which the latter provides the basis for this bird’s common name.

Of course, other wildlife joins the chorus. I have so many spring peepers at the fish pond and in the wet fields around my house that the noise from these tiny amphibians can reach deafening levels. The chorus is bound to grow more diverse and louder as spring advances. Take some time to enjoy the sounds of nature at your own home.

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To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An alert Eastern towhee female forages on a lawn.

 

Buffleheads among delightful winter surprises in region

Marion Howe sent me a stunning photograph of an impressive visitor at her feeders. Shortly after I wrote about Pileated Woodpeckers a few weeks ago, Marion sent me a photo of a Pileated Woodpecker at her suet feeder.

Photo by Marion Howe • This Pileated Woodpecker visited the home of Marion Howe in Kingsport, Tennessee..

“Although I now live in Bristol, I previously lived in Kingsport where I had the pleasure to watch a multitude of birds in my yard, including this one,” Marion wrote. “What a treat when she decided to stop by for a bite to eat!”

Away from our backyard feeders, what sort of birds can one expect to find during the late winter and early spring in northeast Tennessee?

If you’re ready to look a little farther afield, the region offers some great locations for searching for wintering and migrating waterfowl. A variety of ducks and geese pass through the region in late fall and winter. A few species stop to spend the season on area lakes and rivers.

Wilbur Lake in Carter County offers one of the largest wintering populations of Bufflehead in the entire region, if not the state.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Lingering waterfowl, such as these buffleheads, are found in the region in winter and spring.

The Bufflehead belongs to the genus Bucephala, which also includes Common Goldeneye and Barrow’s Goldeneye. These three ducks are all small tree-hole nesting sea ducks found exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere.

The “sea duck” family consists of several other types of ducks, including scoters, mergansers and eiders. All but two of the 20 species in this grouping occur only in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of the sea ducks, not surprisingly, are adapted to life in salt-water environments.

The Bufflehead stands out from its fellow sea ducks for many reasons. The breeding habitat of this little duck consists of wooded lakes and ponds in Alaska and Canada, almost entirely within the boreal forest, or taiga, habitat. In the winter months, Buffleheads migrate to quiet bays or open inland lakes on both the eastern and western coasts of North America, as well as the southern United States as far as southern Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo by bryanhanson1956/Pixabay.com • A pair of Buffleheads enjoy a swim together.

Wilbur Lake has hosted a winter population of Buffleheads for decades. This small duck usually arrives in the final days of October and a few will remain until late April or early May. The flock at Wilbur ranges from about 100 to 200 individuals.

There’s another flock of Buffleheads that spends the winter at Osceola Island Recreation Area in the tailwaters below South Holston Dam in Sullivan County. A one-mile recreational trail at this location offers views of the waterways and any waterfowl congregated on them. The Buffleheads usually remain close to the weir dams at this location. Other wintering ducks at this area include American Wigeon, Mallard and Ring-necked Duck.

Carter County’s high-elevation Ripshin Lake often hosts wintering Buffleheads, but usually only a few individuals are present for as long as this small lake remains unfrozen.

The Bufflehead’s name is derived from “Buffalo Head,” which refers to this small duck’s oversized head. Male Buffleheads have a large, white patch across the back of the head that extends from cheek to cheek, forming a bushy crest that gives the head its large appearance. From a distance, the remainder of the head looks blackish, but when viewed from close range in good light the black plumage in the head shows an iridescent green and purple sheen. The back and rump are black, but the rest of the body is glossy white. The black-and-white pattern is quite unique, making a male Bufflehead impossible to mistake for any other bird. The male’s bill is blue-gray and his legs and feet are pink.

Female Buffleheads are brownish-gray, except for an oval white patch that extends from below the eye back towards the nape of the neck. The belly is whitish, and the female’s bill is dark gray and her legs and feet are grayish.

The Bufflehead is the smallest of North America’s diving ducks. One of the dabbling ducks, the Green-winged Teal, rivals the Bufflehead for the distinction as the continent’s smallest duck. The Bufflehead ranges between 12 and 16 inches long and can weigh 13 ounces. Males are larger than females. By comparison, the Green-winged Teal is usually 14 to 15 inches long and weighs 11 to 12 ounces.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of buffleheads swim on the Watauga River.

Buffleheads spend a lot of time diving for food beneath the water’s surface. Their varied diet consists of insects, crustaceans, some aquatic plants and fish eggs.

The Bufflehead depends on one of our native woodpeckers to provide nesting habitat. The Bufflehead is just the right size to fit into abandoned nesting cavities previously occupied by Northern Flickers.

I’m not sure why the Wilbur Buffleheads choose not to spend the winter months on a salt-water bay farther south, but I am very happy that some of these small, entertaining ducks are so close at hand. I suspect the woodlands around Wilbur Lake may, in fact, resemble some of the wooded lakes on this duck’s summer nesting range.

The Bufflehead is a fairly common duck and appears to be thriving. In 1992, the continent-wide breeding population was estimated at 1,390,000 birds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of Buffleheads brave some rough waters on the Watauga River.

Flocks of red-winged blackbirds, other sightings, could signal winter’s end

Photo by JudaM/Pixabay.com • Feeders are a good way to tempt red-winged blackbirds closer for great views. Males are exceptional in their glossy black plumage with red wing patches accented by a hint of yellow. Females are brown and striped, giving them a similar appearance to large sparrows.

 

H. Lea Jones, Jr. of Bristol, Virginia, wrote to me after seeing my post about pileated woodpeckers a few weeks ago.

“I read with interested your story about this woodpecker,” Lea wrote in an email. “I have been keeping up feeding the birds, which both of my now deceased parents loved to watch, outside the large kitchen windows of their home which I inherited. One day, a couple of years back, while manning the chair and watching the birds, I was startled to see two of these woodpeckers hanging from my extra large suet cage. There was one on each side. Maybe a male and a female?”

Photo by Mike Dobe/Pixabay.com • A pileated woodpecker visits a suet feeder.

Lea noted that the two woodpeckers stayed at the suet for maybe 30 seconds. “I was shocked to see these huge birds and only could assume, at the time, they were woodpeckers. Just very beautiful birds!”

After a little research, Lea discovered the identity of the visitors. “And now I know the ‘sound’ in the wooded area behind the house,” Lea wrote. I had also described the sound in my post.

“Nothing like it I’d ever heard before,” Lea wrote. “Since reading your article, I now realize what a rare sight I have been blessed with. It was truly an amazing sight indeed.”

Dr. John Brenner sent me an email recently about an unexpected sighting at his home in Abingdon, Virginia, on Thursday, Feb. 13, around 5 p.m.

“I saw a Baltimore oriole in my back yard,” he reported. “It was sitting on a fence then flew over to my feeders where it walked around under them.”

He explained that he lives in the heart of Abingdon and has been living at his current address for about three and a half years. “This is the first time I have seen this bird,” he said. “I thought it was unusual.”

Photo by USFWS • Baltimore orioles, like this male, are members of the blackbird family, making them relatives of species such as Eastern meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

Winter sightings of orioles are rather unusual, but they are not unheard of. The North Carolina Birds website details the emerging phenomenon of wintering orioles.

“Until the 1960s, it (Baltimore oriole) essentially did not winter in the United States, but with milder winters and people putting out oranges and peanut butter on their feeders, and not just various seeds and suet, a number of orioles started wintering from North Carolina to Florida,” according to a profile of the species. Straying into Virginia would certainly not be out of the question, although Baltimore orioles are usually expected in southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee from April to October.

In the last couple of weeks, large flocks of red-winged blackbirds have been making stops at my home. The largest flock numbered about 50 individual birds. Red-winged blackbirds are often considered harbingers of spring, but these birds arrived with some of the recent wintry weather that arrived in February.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

I’ve long associated red-winged blackbirds with early spring. I also had a single red-winged blackbird make a one-day visit earlier in February during a snowstorm. Those February visitors are the vanguard of large numbers of red-winged blackbirds that return in impressive numbers every March. The blackbirds arriving now behave much differently than the quiet, shy ones that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbirds made themselves at home at my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails, producing quite a commotion. “The kon-ke-ree song of the male red-winged blackbird is a sure indication that spring is on the way,” according to a profile of the species located at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website. At this time of year, the male red-winged blackbirds seek elevated perches to display and vocalize.

The male red-winged blackbirds is a very aptly named bird. Glossy black males sport red wing patches that are often trimmed with a narrow band of yellow feathers. By contrast, female red-winged blackbirds are mostly brown birds that could easily be mistaken for large sparrows. Both sexes have sharply pointed bills.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red-winged blackbirds arrive as a noisy flock on a wintry February evening.

After I posted on Facebook about the sightings of the red-winged blackbird flocks, Rita Schuettler, a fan of these birds and a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, asked whether these flocks were unseasonably early.

Photo by Lintow/Pixabay.com • Female red-winged blackbirds could easily be mistaken for a large sparrow.

I told Rita in a subsequent post that a friend in Atlanta has informed me that he began seeing the blackbird flocks in his neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. So they are right on time for make their appearance in Northeast Tennessee. Laura Evans Barden also posted on my Facebook page that she has been seeing red-winged blackbirds in recent weeks, as well as more common grackles and European starlings.

Red-winged blackbirds are fond of wetlands. Any marsh, damp field or flooded pasture is likely to attract a few resident red-winged blackbirds. Females choose nesting locations in cattails or other marsh vegetation. She usually lays three or four eggs. Although she does receive some help from the male, most of the responsibility for raising the young is left to her.

There is a reason that male red-winged blackbirds are not always quite as engaged in feeding and tending their young. Male red-winged blackbirds are often polygynous, which means that males will often court multiple mates. His time is often occupied defending females and their respective nests from the advances of other male red-winged blackbirds.

Other relatives of the red-winged blackbird in the United States include the tricolored blackbird found along the Pacific Coast and the yellow-headed blackbird resident in wetlands west of the Great Lakes. Rusty blackbird, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird are other species of blackbirds found in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

Photo by Bryan Stevens  • This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed at Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006.

Several different species of hawks make their home in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

In recent weeks, I’ve enjoyed some observations of the region’s larger raptors, including red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

Anyone who travels along the region’s Interstate Highway System has probably noticed hawks perched in trees or on utility lines adjacent to the roadway. The section of Interstate 26 that runs between Unicoi and Johnson City is often a productive area for keeping alert for raptors. The raptor I have most often observed along this stretch of road is the Red-tailed Hawk, although I have also observed Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and American Kestrel. In the time of spring and fall migration, it’s also possible to observe Broad-winged Hawks.

The Red-tailed Hawk is named for its prominent red tail. However, only adults show the characteristic red tail. The affinity for Red-tailed Hawks for roadsides is a double-edged sword. Viewing a large hawk from your car is an easy way to watch birds. For inexperienced or careless raptors, however, roadside living is often rife with the chance for a collision with a car or truck. The Red-tailed Hawk, which prefers open countryside, is attracted to the margins of roads and highways because these locations also attract their favorite prey, which includes rodents like rats, squirrels and mice and other small mammals such as rabbits.

Human behavior contributes to some of the problems that hawks encounter in the zone that brings them too close for comfort to motorized vehicles. When people toss trash from a car, the scent of the litter will lure curious and hungry rodents. In turn, hunting hawks are brought to the edges of roads in search of their preferred prey, increasing the likelihood of colliding with automobiles.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A calling red-shouldered hawk perched in a dead tree on Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

In recent days, I have also noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk lurking among the branches of the large weeping willow next to the fish pond. The Red-shoulder Hawk typically prefers wetland habitats and is less likely to haunt roadsides. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

The Red-shouldered Hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a Killdeer. The visiting Red-shouldered Hawk has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the presence of any sort of raptor, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year; during courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal, but at other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue Jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive. The Red-shouldered Hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the Red-tailed Hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of red-shouldered hawk.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos Hawk and the Hawaiian Hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the White-throated Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

All too often, our large hawks don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.

Yearly survey encourages participation of citizen-scientists

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Eastern Bluebird is one of the most beloved American songbirds.

Birds can bring so much excitement and entertainment into our lives, whether they are flocking to our feeders or we are seeking them out at favorite birding spots. Next month, we can do something to repay birds for all the joy their simple existence provides many of us. All that’s required is looking out your window to peek at a feeder or perhaps driving to a local park to look for birds.

Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Bird watchers of all ages count birds to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are during the worldwide effort of the GBBC scheduled this year from Friday-Sunday, Feb. 14-17.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a truly global undertaking.

As it has nearly every year, the 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count broke more records and attracted more participants than ever before. The GBBC is global in its scale, which provides a greater reach for dedicated citizen-scientists hoping to contribute to the well-being of the planet’s birds.

Last year’s GBBC tallied 6,699 species of birds on 204,921 checklists submitted by an estimated 224,781 participants.

U.S. participants led the way with an estimated 136,903 checklists submitted by birders in the United States. The nation of India took second place with a total of 21,524 checklists, followed by Canada (16,611), Australia (2,811) and Spain (2,391).

A total of 669 bird species were found in the United States, but that was only an eighth place finish. The country boasting the most birds was Colombia with 1,095 species. Other countries with a diversity of bird species reported included Ecuador (948), Brazil (844), India (843) and Mexico (755).

In the United States, Californians led the way in submitting checklists with a total of 10,059 surveys reported, followed by Texas (9,121), New York (8,453), Florida (7,696) and Pennsylvania (7,640). Virginia, with 6,332 checklists, just barely got edged out of the Top 5.

In my own past efforts on behalf of the GBBC, I’ve enjoyed observation of such rare East Tennessee visitors as Ross’s Goose and Canvasbacks, as well as expected birds such as Carolina Chickadees, Red-tailed Hawks and Buffleheads.

If you look no farther than your own yard and garden, please consider taking part in the 2020 GBBC. It’s free, it’s simple to do, and the results can be valuable for scientific knowledge about our fine feathered friends. To learn more about the GBBC, visit gbbc.birdcount.org.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Song Sparrow perches on a weed. The annual GBBC helps gather important data for even common birds like Song Sparrows.

 

Cardinals do their part to make the winter season brighter

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My own sincere wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees, the drab American goldfinches that look so unlike their summer appearance.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and Kentucky redbird.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even the female Northern cardinal offers a subtle beauty not quite as showy as the male.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada. These birds have even been introduced to Hawaii.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A male cardinal looks splendid against a snowy background.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs. For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals are a favorite for makers of Christmas ornaments.

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.

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.