Owls reign supreme after dark

9:00 am | October 31, 2011

While goblins and ghouls can be dismissed as mere apparitions of the imagination, some real-life feathered phantoms do roam the darkness, perhaps even in your own backyard. If so, you are more likely to have heard them than to have seen them.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - The baleful stare of a Great Horned Owl is a reminder that excellent vision — after dark and during daylight — is only one of the many tools at the disposal of this predatory bird that has been called an avian “tiger of the night.”

If you do hear anything unusual Monday night, chances are the sounds may have been produced by an owl.

Several species of owl reside in Northeast Tennessee, including the Eastern Screech-owl, the Barred Owl, the Great Horned Owl and the 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, Short-eared Owl and even Snowy Owl.

The Barn Owl is an owl that has adapted its ways to co-exist with humans. Even its common name refers to the fact that these owls will roost and nest in barns and other structures. For instance, some homes in northern Germany feature a Uhlenloch, or owl-hole, that provides Barn Owls access to the attic for nesting.

I was surprised to learn during my background research that the Barn Owl is the most widely distributed species of owl as well as one of the most widespread birds on the planet. This owl is also referred to as Common Barn Owl, to distinguish it from other species in the barn-owl family Tytonidae. Owls in this family comprise one of two main lineages of living owls, the other being the typical owls in the Strigidae family. The Barn Owl, known by the scientific name, Tyto alba, is found almost worldwide except in polar and desert regions, Asia north of the Alpide belt, most of Indonesia, and the Pacific islands.

All owls are carnivores, but the Barn Owl specializes on rodents more than many of its kin. However, this owl will also eat other birds and insects.

Because of their pale plumage and nocturnal habits, Barn Owls have also been saddled with such common names as Demon Owl, Death Owl, Night Owl and Ghost Owl.

Other common names include Rat Owl, inspired by one of its major prey items, and Barnyard Owl and Church Owl, which are two haunts where these owls often roost or perch. I also liked the name Scritch Owl and Hissing Owl, which were acquired because of vocalizations from this bird.

The Great Horned Owl is widespread in the Americas and is one of the more frequently encountered owls in Northeast Tennessee. A fearsome nocturnal predator, the Great Horned Owl has earned the name “Tiger of the Night.”

Although rabbits are its most common prey, the Great Horned Owl is not a finicky predator. These birds have 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.

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. The Barred Owl’s most common vocalization is usually translated as “Who cooks for you?” During my participation in the recent Fall Bird Count conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society I heard several Barred Owls calling from the wooded slopes of Holston Mountain.

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.

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. The sorcerer Merlin was always shown with an owl on his shoulder. During the Middle Ages owls became symbols of learning and intelligence. The Greeks didn’t fear owls as did the Romans. In fact, the owl was the sacred mascot of the Greek goddess Athena.

In Japan, pictures and figures of owls were placed in homes to ward off famine or epidemics. There is some logic to this practice. In reality, 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - The Great Horned Owl belongs to a varied family of predatory birds. Although not all owls are nocturnal, they are all highly efficient predators that help keep rodent and insect populations in check.

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 they be 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.

Many species of owls have proven capable of thriving even in the face of human alteration of the environment. 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.

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 — that also make them seem more expressive to human observers — with binocular vision and extremely accurate depth perception.

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.

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 is 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.

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Fellow birder Wallace Coffey is well known for his interest in owls, and requested that the next time I wrote about owls to put out the word that he would like to locate some roosting spots in Carter County for Barn Owls. If any readers know of or suspect a Barn Owl is roosting in an old barn, silo or other structure, please get in touch with me. The Barn Owl is probably more common in the area than many people realize, and local birders would like to know more about this particular owl’s whereabouts. To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, call me at 297-9077 or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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I enjoyed time in South Carolina from Oct. 14-Oct. 21. I visited a variety of locations, including Donnelly Wildlife Management Area, Huntington Beach State Park, Givhans Ferry State Park, Hunting Island State Park, Charleston and Fripp Island. I saw many birds, including a new species that took my life list up one more notch. I will share some accounts from this trip as well as photographs in upcoming columns.

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