Owls: Masters of the Night Part 2

In my last blog, I examined a bit of the life history of owls and talked about how Screech Owls may look cute, but can be vicious, deadly killers.  This post will focus on six different owl species!  Are you getting chills down your spine?  Hold on, I’m going to squeeze my plush owl so that it will hoot in delight.  I also want to take a look at how owls can fly silently and why some of them have asymmetrical ears.

When I interned at the World Bird Sanctuary, the owl that was most often admitted to the wildlife hospital was the Barred Owl.  Barred Owls are fairly common and tend to eat dinner or engage in mating rituals in front of cars.  Despite their propensity for flying into danger, Barred Owls are really cool birds and they have a great call.  The first time I heard a Barred Owl in the wild, I was somewhat startled because it sounded like a sick animal moaning loudly.  Besides the strange noises they make, Barred Owls also have a call that is described as “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”.  Many owls are eerily cool when you hear them call out in the dark and the Barred Owls are no exception.  Barred Owls enjoy hunting small mammals, birds and reptiles and occasionally will go fishing.  They tend to settle in an area and don’t migrate like many birds do.  Now owls are usually more active at night but ironically, I’ve only seen Barred Owls in the wild during the day.  When they get agitated, these owls will snap their beaks and glare at you.  What’s really cute is when you have an injured owl in your arms and it looks up into your eyes.

(Top – Barred Owl http://www.allaboutbirds.org. Bottom – Injured Barred Owl that I took care of)

Barn Owls are commonly seen in barns.  Let me give you a minute to process that shocking fact.  Okay now?  The Barn Owl should really be called the Screech Owl due to its raspy screaming calls.  There were Barn Owls at the sanctuary that would screech seemingly all day in an effort to get more food.  I tried to teach them the quiet game but it didn’t work.  Barn Owls are wonderfully graceful fliers and have beautiful plumage on their wings.  They also have terrific hearing and can locate prey in complete darkness.  They do this by using echolocation, like a dolphin.  They are also the symbol used by Bruce Wayne when he transforms into the Dark Knight.  What’s that?  Wrong animal?  All right.  Barn Owls actually have great hearing for a couple of reasons.  One, their face is flat and kind of sinks in.  This helps funnel sounds toward the ears.  Barn Owls also have asymmetrical ears, meaning that the left ear is positioned differently than the right ear.  This allows the owl to focus in on whether a sound is coming from below them or above them during flight.  Owls also turn their heads towards a sound but contrary to popular belief, they cannot turn their heads around 360 degrees.

(Top – Goblin from the World Bird Sanctuary. Bottom – Marshmallow.)

The first owl I ever handled was a Tawny Owl named Tigger.  Tigger was a great bird to work with and often let out a friendly quivering call of greeting.  Tawny Owls are medium-sized owls that live primarily in Europe and Asia.  These owls are so popular in Europe that the Tawny Owl was used as the inspiration for the character ‘Owl’ in Winnie the Pooh.  They have a typical diet of rodents, birds and small mammals.  Tawny Owls also have a reputation for fiercely defending their nests.  One photographer in England had his eye gouged out by an agitated Tawny!  I’m pretty sure that’s how Cyclops from the X-Men lost his eyesight.  Be sure to stay away from owl nests!


(Tigger the Tawny Owl)

Eagle Owls are among the largest owls in the world.  Between their large size, and their brightly colored eyes, these owls know how to stand out in a crowd.  Eurasian Eagle Owls (EEOs) can grow up to two and a half feet long and weigh up to 9 pounds!  As with most raptor species, the female is large than the male.  EEOs eat the same diet as most owls but some individuals have been observed taking down prey as large as a deer!  EEOs are very adaptable and live throughout Eurasia and Africa.  In fact, an EEO once temporarily postponed a soccer game by sitting on a goal post!   I had the opportunity to work with several of these beautiful owls and enjoyed training them and observing their behavior.  Their orange eyes are really cool and they were well behaved birds.  Now these owls have great eyesight but one of the funny things is, sometimes they have trouble seeing objects right under them.  There were several times when I was helping to train EEOs when they could not find the food on their perch!  They would stand up straight, bend their head down and make grunting noises.  It was actually pretty hilarious!

2010-10-25 11.35.43

(Xena the Eagle Owl/Warrior Princess)

Snowy Owls are absolutely gorgeous members of the owl family that made headlines last year when increasing numbers of them were seen throughout the U.S.  Normally Snowy Owls live in the Arctic regions around Canada, Alaska and Russia.   Some Snowy Owls do live in the U.S. on a regular basis but in the winter of 2011-2012, these owls were seen in abundance all over the U.S.  One individual even ventured into Texas!  The reason for the sudden influx of Snowy Owls was thought to be due to the population explosion of lemmings.  Snowy Owl breeding success often depends upon the food supply, and so the increase in lemmings led to more successful broods of Snowy Owls.  This in turn led to young owls seeking food elsewhere as the population boomed.  By the way, there’s a rumor that many lemmings dove off nearby cliffs in an effort to escape the fierce Snowy Owls.  Besides lemmings, Snowy Owls also eat other mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and insects.  These stocky owls actually hunt quite often in the daylight and a single individual is capable of consuming more than 1,600 lemmings in a single year!  Snowy Owls have also been made famous through movies like Harry Potter.  An interesting tidbit to mention is that only the males can be completely white while the females often have dark spots on their wings.  With their striking white bodies and brilliant yellow eyes, Snowy Owls are definitely one of the most recognizable members of the owl world.

Photo: A snowy owl perched atop a rock

(Photo from National Geographic)

Now for one of the fiercest owls in the world, the Great Horned Owl.  Nicknamed the “Tiger of the sky” for its strength and prowess, the Great Horned Owl is capabale of taking down all kinds of mammals and birds including turkeys.  They also have been known to munch on skunks and take down a whole flock of crows!  The next time you hear a flock of crows going crazy, check it out.  They just might be mobbing an owl to chase it away.  One of the distinguishing features of a Great Horned Owl is its ear tufts for which it is named.  Want to know a secret?  The tufts are not actually ears!  Yes, I know.  I just ruined your life in the same way your parents did when they told you there was no Santa Claus.  The ears are actually hidden under feathers on the side of the head.   Scientists are still unsure what roles the tufts play with some suggesting they are used for communication.

Another cool thing about the Great Horned Owl is that it is responsible for the powerful hoots that most people associate with owls.  Did you know that besides hooting, Great Horned Owls can also bark, grunt and chirp like a songbird?  I laughed fairly hard the first time I heard one chirp.  Great Horned Owls are just so cool and I loved working with them as they were all really well behaved.  Well, except for Carmelita.  She liked to grip my glove really tightly with her talons.  These owls do form very strong grips with their sharp talons and they can definitely cause pain!  Now Great Horned Owls are like many owls in that they are able to fly almost silently through the air.  The way they do this is by the design of the tips of their primary feathers.  Basically, their feathers are serrated in a way that reduces turbulence and changes the flow of air while muffling any sound.  Pretty cool, huh?

(Junior and Jake, Great Horned Owls from the World Bird Sanctuary.)

Hopefully you’ve learned something from my blogs on birds of prey.  I’ve enjoyed writing them and I plan to write more blogs about animals in the near future. Here are the key things to remember from this post:

  • Barred Owls cook for you
  • Batman is a Barn Owl
  • Tawny Owls can rip your eyes out
  • Eagle Owls like to play soccer
  • Snowy Owls drive lemmings to commit suicide
  • Great Horned Owls are just cute and very powerful songbirds

Now it’s time for me to go back to listening to my plush Great Horned Owl while staring at my owl wall calendar.  Adios!


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