Diet and health, children and schools, friends and instant communication are our preoccupying early 21st century concerns, but not deadly owls.
Across pre-electric lighted cultures in Great Britain and across Eurasia, darkness fears were personified by horned, glowing-eyed, terrifying sounding owls. Thought to be cohorts of witches and the devil, owls were persecuted symbols of evil and death. We brought this fear of the Eurasian eagle-owl to its American cousin, the great horned owl. Many native tribes here also associated owls with death, compounding our irrational fears. With the advent of electricity and scientific curiosity, we’ve shed new light on owls in many fascinating ways.
Eighteen owl species breed in North America, and the Pacific Northwest is blessed with 11. Eight owl species hunt their animal prey in our area — the larger taking our least liked, inexhaustible mice, rabbits and rats. Depending on owl size, prey ranges from moths and beetles, earthworms, and other invertebrates to amphibians, reptiles and fish to such mammals as shrews and bats to opossum, skunk and cats. Keep kitty inside at night! Long incubation and fledgling time necessitates late winter nesting. Three Washington owls live outside our local range: great gray (mountains), burrowing (shrub-steppe) and the threatened spotted (old-growth forests).
Owl calls are better identification clues at night than visual descriptions. Which call do you hear? Hoots? Then you need count: four or five hoos tells us great horned owl. Their celebrity catches your ear locally both at night and on movie and TV sound tracks: a soft dove-like hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo. The GREAT HORNed’s name describes our largest owl, 20 inches tall with a 48-inch wingspan in flight. The devil you say, but HORNS they aren’t, nor are they ears, but feathers. Ear tuft theories abound, and the best: tufts signal non-vocal emotions — at ease, curiosity, anger — between mates at the nest, plus a warning to all others to avoid this fierce nest defender. A pity our persecuting forbearers around the world misread owl pillow talk.
The large tuftless eight hooter: who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-youah barred owl immigrated here on its own from the East. Throat barring is horizontal beneath its dark eyes. At our house, their loud late night amorous chuckling, grunting, laughing exchanges on the rustic arbor just outside our window are far funnier than scary.
All owls have incredible real ears without external parts just behind distinctive facial discs that funnel in sound. One ear is more forward and a little higher than the other. In total darkness, this asymmetry both left and right and up and down pinpoints prey squeaks or rustling as the owl swoops in on soundless fringed wing feathers. Despite the myth, owls can’t rotate heads completely around, but their 270 degrees either way far exceed our puny 90 degrees. You’ll know where owls roost from dropped owl pellets — regurgitated, indigestible wads of bones compressed in a matrix of fur or feathers providing us clues to owl diets.
Open area owls
The short-eared owl of grasslands, marshes and dunes has seldom visible tufts. Hunting rodents day and night, it sleeps and nests on the ground. Beaches, dunes and fields sometimes host unmistakable day-hunting snowy owls from the far wintery North. Our many local farms and ranches can support barn owls catching vermin and nesting in sheds, silos and even belfries. Barn’s distinctive heart-shaped face, fluttering moth-like flight and golden tan above white underparts suggest a flying ghost at night.
Our smallest owls
The Northern pygmy owl would be an exciting addition to my life list. Pygmy is smaller than a robin and unowl-like; neither short-tailed nor perching upright — seemingly just another little brown bird lurking near the feeder. I may have been fooled too, like its songbird prey. Northern pygmies nest in old flicker woodpecker holes as do the next two.
Robin-sized but rounder, saw-whet and Western screech-owls will accept nest boxes, but normally sleep by day in tree cavities or against tree bark. Mice are the largest of their tiny prey. Compressed bodies and raised tufts above closed eyes make the screech resemble a tree trunk with a broken snag top. Screech-owl chest feathers are as bark-like as tree bark and their calls a more mournful whinny than a screech! Saw-whets seemingly files a saw blade or sounds a musical saw tremolo.
Wise old owls
We’re wiser today to enjoy more positive attitudes toward these magnificent raptors. The wisdom lies not in any individual, but collectively in wonderfully diverse ecosystems that provide sustenance for day flyers like hawks and mysterious owls by night.
We’ll always celebrate these silent aerial hunters in lore and legend, art and literature.
Bibliography from Gig Harbor Library
(The House of Owls by Tony Angell, Yale U. Press, New Haven, 2015; Owls in Folklore and Natural History by Virginia Holmgren, Capra Press, Santa Barbara, 1988; Owls by Tom Warhol, Cavendish Benchmark, NY, 2008 (juvenile))
Naturalist Ramblings columnist Frank Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.