Category Archives: The Owls Are Not What They Seem

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.

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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.