Tag Archives: Myths about 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.

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.