Moving cautiously, I slipped out onto the deck. They could see me well enough but I hoped my non-threatening behavior would encourage them to stay, and stay they did. For the next hour I sat curled up on the porch swing, listening to sounds that were both haunting and primordial, reflecting on how these sounds once struck terror in the hearts of our ancestors and made owls dreaded symbols of the dark.
The ancient Greeks associated owls with Athena, goddess of wisdom and foresight, hence the term wise owl. In classical art she was depicted with an owl perched upon her shoulder or as an owl herself—a shape shifter who could change at will. Unlike the Greeks, ancient Romans held dreadful beliefs about owls, their history stating that no fewer than three Caesars had their deaths foretold by an owl’s dire hoots. Romans left an indelible mark on the way medieval Western cultures, with their wealth of superstitions, would perceive these feathered denizens. Portrayed as sinister and unholy, owls were feared and persecuted.
In America owls were believed to be familiars of witches and companions of Satan, and many viewed owl calls as harbingers of death. And there are still cultures today who claim that owl feathers, eyes, and body parts can ward off evil, and the birds are slaughtered for profit and for sport. In 1972 the dwindling American owl population was placed under federal protection.
Ironically in recent years, author J.K.Rowling’s endearing books about young witches and wizards in her “Harry Potter” series have played no small part in the increased popularity of owls and in North America owls have made a comeback. For many, they are now an endless source of fascination.
Our region is rich with a variety of owls that live here year round. Barred, Great Horned, Barn, and Screech all have their niche. Some prefer the deep cover of deciduous forests and pines; others are open country birds, inhabiting fields and pastures; still others prefer the rich marshlands along rivers and bays. A few have even adapted to suburbia. Some confine their hunting until after dark while others will hunt in both daylight and deep twilight. Their sizes and distinguishing characteristics may vary but they all have one thing in common—they are superior predators.
Ground squirrels, flying squirrels, mice, voles, rabbits, shrews, gophers, skunks, bats, birds, crabs, reptiles, and a variety of nocturnal flying and crawling insects are fair game. Swallowed whole or torn into bite-sized hunks, their prey is ingested furs, feathers, bones and all. Later, the indigestible parts are regurgitated in a compact, felted mass known as a pellet or casting. If one is so inclined, you can examine these castings and determine what comprised the owl’s most recent meals.
Owls have superior eyesight at night, although they see clearly during daylight as well, utilizing an inner eyelid to block bright sunlight. Most birds have eyes on each side of their heads, but an owl has both eyes in front, giving them wonderful depth perception but preventing them from seeing to the sides or behind. To compensate, owls can rotate their heads 270° around, contributing to the ancient belief that owls can rotate their heads completely around and are therefore demonic.
An owl’s head is rarely still—bobbing, swiveling, craning, and stretching, like a radar scanner constantly repositioning, listening for the rustle of potential prey. Using the feathers around its face to transmit and amplify sound waves, the owl may move about triangulating on the source of a sound and once pinpointed, swoop silently down to snatch its prey.
Its flight is virtually silent. Owl feathers are soft and downy to the touch, deadening the sound of air rushing over the feathers while the bird is in flight. The front edge of the primary wing feather is toothed like a handsaw, enabling the wind to pass over the wings and keep the bird’s flight noiseless. Their wings are not constructed for soaring but made for short silent swoops and owls must work hard to stay aloft.
When perched high above the forest Working only with shades of umber, buff, pearl, clove, and soot, nature has used this neutral palette quite effectively, creating patterns and contours, zigzags, spots, stripes, bars, and speckling that blend seamlessly into their environment.
Owls are monogamous, courting in late winter and early spring, and rearing their young in nests they return to year after year. Feeding their brood is a full time job since owlets are not ready to leave the nest for several weeks. When they are old enough to fly, they will follow their parents in hunting forays until ready to hunt for themselves.
Our most vocal owl by far is the Barred owl. They are also our most common owl, often nesting and rearing their young near marshes and ponds.
Barred owls can be recognized by their round heads, dark eyes and vertical brown and white stripes or barring on their chest and belly that run sideways like a bib. Barred owls are most active after dark but can be seen during the day as well, especially at dawn or dusk. They prefer to perch high up in the trees, watching and listening for prey. One late spring day my neighbor was startled by the sound of a large object crashing into his sun porch window. A Barred owl had spotted a porcelain blue jay sitting on their coffee table and, swooping down for the kill, collided with the glass. Stunned, the owl lay on its back panting heavily, wings outstretched. Leery of its razor sharp talons, my neighbor could only stand by and hope the bird recovered. It eventually did and flew off, my neighbor wisely removing the statue from his porch.
The Great Horned owl, our largest owl, was first observed in the Tidewater Virginia colonies, hence its species name, Bubo virginianus. Our wet lowlands and moist upland forests are prime owl habitat, providing abundant roosting and nesting sights and an ample food supply. Despite its name, Great Horned owls don’t have horns at all, but prominent ear tufts comprised of soft feathers.
The deep, resonant “hoo hoo-hoo-hoo” echoing through our woods this spring announced the arrival of a pair searching for the ideal nesting site, a flock of crows screaming indignities from the nearby trees. The owl pair ignored the insults and settled in to raise their brood. I, for one, was happy to have them and hoped they would help deplete my annoying vole population.
In rural areas the Barn owl, with its distinctive white heart-shaped facial disk, prefers to hunt the open fields and pastures for rodents and reptiles, carefully selecting nesting sites close to their food sources. An exceptionally vocal bird, its nightly shrieks, “kek-kek-kek-kek” can startle the unsuspecting as it soars overhead. Barn owls begin hunting at dusk, gliding silently against the wind, using wind resistance to slow their glide as they search fields and pastures below for prey. By moonlight their pale silhouettes seem to glow.
If you are fortunate enough to have one perched in your barn rafters, your varmint population will virtually disappear. They are such good hunters that several European countries, overrun by rats and mice, have imported them as flying pest controls. As rural areas have been displaced by suburbia, the Barn owl population has sadly declined.
One spring an Eastern Screech owl took up residence in a pine tree in our yard, its nighttime call a soft, tremulous trilling. Bright cinnamon with lemon yellow eyes, jet black eyebrows, and ear tufts that begin as a mustache on either side of its beak, it’s our region’s smallest owl.
Screech owls prefer to nest near water as they are one of the few owls who will fish for their supper. They’ve been seen wading in shallow water and tidal pools on the hunt for small fish and crustaceans. These diminutive birds may be red or grey, depending on its habitat.
Within an hour I was chilled to the bone and when a neighbor’s rooster announced the approach of dawn, the forest suddenly fell silent. I did not hear them leaving but felt the void left behind by their departure. The late author and naturalist Jonathan Evan Maslow once noted, “To know the owl, you don’t need a degree from Cornell or a grant from Exxon. You needn’t go on exotic safaris or buy a lot of expensive gadgets. Only pay heed to whatever district you live in, and listen to the night surrounding you. There’s more going on under your own window than you can absorb in a full and fruitful lifetime.”