Category Archives: Halloween

Mysterious nocturnal predators, owls not always what they seem

A pair of great horned owls have occupied the wooded ridge behind my rural home. Since early October, these owls have reminded me each day toward dusk the reason that many people know this large, predatory bird as the “hoot owl.” Low hoots are produced as the two individual owls call and communicate to each other. On many days, this dependable serenade begins a half hour in advance of sunset.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/George Gentry        A Great Horned Owl and a fledgling at the nest.

I love listening to the sonorous vocalizations of the great horned owl, which ranks as one of the largest owls in the region. 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 fiction as Harry Potter’s loyal companion owl — 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.

The Eurasian eagle owl takes the grand prize for size among owls of the Northern Hemisphere. This large relative of the great horned owl has been known to prey on foxes and fawns. A female Eurasian eagle owl can weight almost nine and a half pounds. The great horned owl, in comparison, usually weighs no more than about three and a half pounds. On the other hand, a large female snowy owl may weigh as much as 6.6 pounds. As is often the case with raptors, females are larger than males.

Owls, by and large, have been transformed in our time into beloved birds, the stars of viral videos distributed by social media. We no longer think of owls as portents of doom and gloom. While owls still reign supreme once the sun sets and darkness dominates, we no longer fear them. Instead, we’re fascinated by them. As a result, long-standing misunderstandings have fallen by the wayside as we learn more about these incredible birds.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Susan Rachlin     A Great Horned Owl is always alert to its surroundings.

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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                            This great horned owl is part of an educational program at Callaway Gardens in Georgia. Unable to be released back into the wild, this owl helps educate the public on the curious ways of this large feathered predator.

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

Quite often, it does take a crow’s sharp eye to detect a motionless owl at its daytime roost. Great horned owls have a plumage of mottled grays and browns, as well as some white feathers on the chin and throat. This plumage helps them blend into their surroundings. Even when on the move, the great horned owl rarely attracts attention. They can fly in almost perfect silence on their wide wings.

Crows are not the only wildlife with good reason to fear the great horned owl. This predatory bird feeds on the nestlings of other raptors. The great horned owl also preys on ducks and other waterfowl, rabbits, other small rodents, as well as some reptiles, amphibians and even bats.

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

• This owl is one of the few predators that preys regularly on skunks. Lacking a well-defined sense of smell, owls aren’t bothered in the least by the skunk’s powerful arsenal of stink.

• A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls have been reported reach ages of more than 30 years old.

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The owl symbol from the 1990s drama, Twin Peaks.

• 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.

• The David Lynch drama Twin Peaks, which ran originally on ABC from April of 1990 to June of 1991, spent considerable time dwelling on the mystery that “the owls are not what they seem.” Footage of great horned owls provided a sinister, mysterious mood that fascinated viewers. The series is being resurrected in 2017 on Showtime, so fans may finally learn the truth about the owls and their importance to the fictional town of Twin Peaks.

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Great Horned Owls painted by early naturalist John James Audubon.

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

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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.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s raven much like the real-world bird

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                      A Common Raven turns a fallen log into a perch.

From the opening refrain of “once upon a midnight dreary” in his poem, “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe established a somber mood and also helped cement the dark reputation of one of North America’s most misunderstood birds.

 

The common raven seems an apt bird for this week’s column since we will be celebrating Halloween this coming Saturday. Poe’s poem offers a dramatic introduction to a bird that has once again become rather common in the region, particularly at higher elevations. This bird is well-known for nesting on inaccessible cliffs. However, this past year a pair of ravens chose a more unusual location when they built a nest beneath the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway. Ravens have nested annually at this location at least since the spring of 2013.

Poe’s well-known poem, first published in 1845, is often cited as evidence for Poe’s genius for rhyme and his ability to create a believable supernatural universe populated by dark forces and one particularly persistent raven.

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Edgar Allan Poe, author of “The Raven.”

Poe describes the bird that provides the title of his famous poem with adjectives such as “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous.” His raven also speaks, although it has the limited vocabulary of a single word, “Nevermore.”

How closely does the real common raven resemble the “bird of yore” in Poe’s classic poem?

Establishing the raven’s closest relatives is helpful. The raven is a member of the corvid family, which includes birds such as crows, magpies, nutcrackers and jackdaws. The common raven is the largest bird among the corvids. This bird can achieve a wingspan of almost four feet. The average raven weighs about two-and-a-half pounds. Large individuals have been recorded with a weight of slightly more than four pounds, making the raven a contender for the title of world’s largest songbird.

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John James Audubon painted the Common Raven as part of his ground-breaking “Birds of America.”

It’s also an intelligent bird. Authors of a scientific study conducted about 10 years ago posited the claim that ravens and crows are just as intelligent as some of the great apes. Although parrots are more famous for the ability to mimic human speech, captive ravens have proven capable of learning more words than even the most impressive vocabulary-endowed parrots. So, Poe was not wide of the mark when he gave the gift of gab to the raven in his poem.

In the United States, the raven is quite common in Alaska. In the lower 48 states, raven populations are somewhat more sporadic. These large birds have established strongholds along the Appalachian Mountains and in the American Southwest. The raven is a cosmopolitan bird known to range from North America and Greenland to Europe and Asia, as well as North Africa and the Canary Islands.

The common raven is mainly a scavenger, but this bird is also an opportunistic predator and will prey on a wide variety of animals, including arthropods, amphibians, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and carrion. Ravens are attracted to carrion and are not finicky eaters. They adapt quickly and are known to even consume garbage.

Its black coloration has undoubtedly contributed to the raven’s sinister reputation and its affiliation with many dark superstitions. According to Laura C. Martin’s book, “The Folklore of Birds,” notes that the raven is “loathed throughout Europe as a symbol of impending death and war.” She explains that the raven probably acquired these connotations because these birds fed on battlefield corpses. As indicated earlier, the raven is not a picky eater.71GJJF6G3WL._UY250_

Martin also points out that legend maintains that England will remain a powerful nation as long as ravens live in the infamous Tower of London.

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Noah release a raven prior to setting free a dove.

The Bible offers a rich source of tales involving ravens. The prophet Elijah, after falling afoul of a wicked king, went into hiding and was provided food by cooperative ravens. In the story of the Biblical flood, Noah first released a raven to determine if the waters had receded. When the raven didn’t return to the ark, Noah next released a dove. This bird later returned to the ark clutching an olive leaf, which proved that the flood waters had subsided.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The Common Raven, like most other corvids, is known for intelligence.

Many cultures also consider the raven as a “bringer of magic,” and the bird is associated with many creation stories in Native American cultures. Unlike the European custom of designating black as an “evil” color, Native Americans teach that black can hold various meanings, including resting, healing and prophetic dreaming, but evil is not one of them.

Ravens and crows are similar, but ravens are much larger birds. In addition, ravens have wedge-shaped tails and crows have fan-shaped tails. The common raven also has a well-developed ruff of feathers on the throat, commonly called its “hackles.”
A “murder of crows” is a fairly well known collective noun for a flock of these birds. On the other hand, a group of ravens has many collective nouns, including a “bazaar,” “constable” and “rant” of ravens. For its alliteration, I am fond of “a rant of ravens” and think it’s a shame that Poe’s raven was apparently a solitary bird.

Other species of ravens found around the world include dwarf raven, thick-billed raven, fan-tailed raven, brown-necked raven, little raven and forest raven.

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Doves, by virtue of their light plumage, are often associated with good, while dark-feathered ravens are associated with darkness and evil.

If you hear the guttural, low caw of a raven this Halloween, beware of this bird’s long history of association with the darker niches of the world. Here’s one final tidbit regarding this bird from Martin’s book. Cherokee tribes believed that ravens would visit villages to seek out ill or dying people. In the absence of a village shaman to drive away the bird, the raven would invariably snatch the life of the ailing individual. It’s something I wanted to make you aware of in advance of the year’s most spooky holiday.

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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.