Some Unusual Owls and One Old Friend
Owls, of course, come in all sizes and have adjusted themselves to all kinds of habitats, from high mountains to deserts and everything between. They eat all kinds of creatures, from the smallest insects up to fairly good-sized mammals and reptiles. All owls have a special flexible joint in the outer front toe, which swivels to the back when they perch or grasp prey. (Among other raptors, only the Osprey has this flexibility, which helps it maintain a grip on a slippery fish.) All owls have good hearing – some better than others. They possess a facial disc of stiff feathers to guide sounds to the ears, which on some species are set at different levels in the skull to aid with sound location. So far, in testing hearing, the only owl that has been demonstrated finding prey in leaf litter in total darkness is the Barn Owl, subject of well-known laboratory tests by Roger Payne, the scientist who demonstrated whale subsonic communication and elephant long-distant exchanges.
The following owls are ones (with the exception the Barn Owl, the last) you may not see frequently, or ever, in the wild. Their habitats are relatively specific, and unless you go where they are, you won’t see or hear them. The Barn Owl is common where it is found in this country, but not a great traveler, and is usually specific to agricultural areas.
Scroll to the end for a recording of common owl vocalizations.
Long-eared (Asio otus) & Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) These medium-sized owls share many habits and traits. The Long-eared, however, has ear tufts almost always in evidence, while the Short-eared, as the name implies, keeps its tufts well hidden except when the bird is moved to lift them. Both live in open country and are more active hunters than many other owls, cruising fields in daylight and dusk, with long narrow wings uptilted, watching and listening for rodents. The Short-eared also hunts over marshes and lays its eggs on the ground, in northern Canada where it summers, while the Long-eared nests here in California, in tree cavities or abandoned large nests.
The Short-eared is a relatively silent bird, making “hoo” calls when it does vocalize. Long-eareds also have a “hoo” call, but it can make a variety of truly chilling shrieks and howls. In winter, Long-eareds will gather in large groups, 20 or more roosting together. In spring, pairs separate and raise their young.
Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) Surely in looks this is the archetype of owl-dom: spectral gray, with a round face circled with concentric rings, and piercing yellow eyes. It is our country’s tallest owl. The Great Horned and Snowy are heavier – the Gray’s impressive mass consists of dense feathers, which help it survive in the cold of its preferred northern habitat. The Gray’s hearing is so acute, it can capture rodents under deep snow by sound alone, breaking through a frozen crust strong enough to support a man. In California, the southern limit of its range, it lives in the Sierra, where it is rare, though it is not uncommon in its other habitats. Photographs of this dramatic bird abound, largely because it often hunts by day and is visible against its white winter backdrop. Recently (2011), a group of Grays was found nesting in a large, actively forested area in the foothills of Northern California, much lower in altitude than the books advise, and in surprisingly dense numbers – behavior officially considered “atypical.” But as one biologist put it, “Between the bird and the book, I’ll believe the bird every time.”
Barn Owl (Tyto alba) This owl is classed separately from the others, and is the only member of its family (Tytonidae) in the US. Worldwide, the family, which includes Bay Owls as well as Barn Owls, is the most common. Alba is a medium-sized owl, with beautiful rust markings on its back and wings and a pale, ghostly underside. Its heart-shaped face varies from nearly pure white to rusty tan. It is widely accepted now that the paler the bird, the more likely it is to be male, a trait that is apparently decided by the female’s choice of looks in her mate.
The Barn Owl nests in cavities near fields, or as its name implies, in niches in farm buildings, where it can have easy access to rodents to feed its really prodigious number of young. A pair of Barn Owls may produce up to 17 babies a year, laying eggs as long as food is plentiful. Recently, this owl has become popular with Central Valley farmers, who put nest boxes sized precisely to the birds’ requirements in and around their fields. Each of these owls eats about 2,000 rodents a year – an economically and ecologically sound rodenticide!
Barn Owls do not hoot. The adults scream piercingly – their blood-curdling cries often add drama to jungle movies. Barn Owl youngsters intimidate visitors by hissing loudly whenever they are disturbed.
Owls in Our Minds
Owls have figured more than any other birds, even eagles, in the mythologies of human cultures. Many ancient peoples considered them either sacred, like the owl that accompanied the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, or as an omen of death, particularly in some (but by no means all) New World cultures.
Some basic response to owls in our human psyche seems to have remained largely unchanged through time: A Miwok visitor to the California State Fair in 2011 reported that his people believe the owl to be “the truth-teller” – and that at the same time, many listeners fear hearing the truth.
School children still half-seriously associate owls with graveyards and Halloween, and are fascinated by these birds and simultaneously fearful. Owls have recently taken an important role in young adult fiction: The ones in the Harry Potter series have personalities and character. The Legend of the Guardians, books and film, present an entire owl world as if the birds were peopling a parallel Earth. All this is fine for literature, but unfortunately, when animals are seen as “totems” or representatives of an idea, their real counterparts often suffer cruelly in the wake of our interest and strong feelings.
Part of the drawing power of owls is surely their mysterious night habits and spooky cries, and perhaps the fact that their round baby-like faces make them look more than a little like humans in bird form.