Nature Meditation #8 – Whoooo? Owls

“I rejoice that there are owls. They represent the stark, twilight, unsatisfied thoughts I have.” — Henry David Thoreau

In an earlier post, I asked readers to let me know what animals they wanted to learn more about. One request was for information about owls. This quote from Thoreau seems appropriate. I think that many of us wonder about owls. They seem like mystical beings with their huge eyes and silent flight.

Some of us are superstitious about owls. Others are fascinated. Over the past twenty years, many young students have studied owl ‘pellets’ in school and learned about what owls eat.  (

Most often we think of owls as nighttime creatures. They are a to-of -the-food chain predator – and one of the night hunters. These animals have a sharp sense of smell and incredible eyesight. Their ears are asymmetric (one ear may be bigger and higher on the head than the other) which allows them to locate their prey in darkness with only tiny sounds of movement. The great-horned owl and some other species of owls are tufted; they have groups of feathers resembling ears on the top of their heads. Their actual ears are located  lower on their skulls. 

Owls have huge eyes to capture as much light as possible during the night, but cannot move their eyes in their sockets. Instead, they turn their entire head sideways, sometimes as much as 270 degrees!
 
They fly almost silently, due to the fringed edges of their wing feathers and the thick and fluffy feathers that cover the rest of their body.

Owls communicate with hoots, wails and whistles. The barred owl is often said to sound like the question, “who cooks for you?”  One night in late winter, I heard a courtship ceremony of a barred owl. The hooting sounds came from two different areas of our forested backyard. Then the sounds changed until they resebled the chatter of monkeys in a zoo. The hooting, and a similar response, went on for several minutes as the birds followed each other from tree to tree. Eventually they flew far enough away that  we could no longer hear them.

Owls are believed to vary the distance that they fly in search of food according to the availability of that food. In non-urban areas, they may hunt over as much as 75 to 100 acres. In urban areas, where their prey is more plentiful and concentrated, owls hunt for food over fewer acres, perhaps only 10-15.
 
Typical owl food includes smaller birds, rodents and insects. An owl ‘pellet’ is dried regurgitated matter that an owl cannot digest. It includes bones, insect exoskeletons, feathers, and other matter. An interesting and frequent observation in science class is to poke through one of these dry owl ‘pellets’ and observe what the owl had for dinner. Pellets are commercially available through science outlets.

Superstition has something to say about an owl calling outside your window at night, but this myth from the Middle Ages and Native American lore has no basis in fact. Actually, it’s a good thing to have owls living nearby. Their favorite food includes mice and rats which are known carriers of disease.

Owls are found in many different habitats. European little owls sometimes nest in rabbit holes. The burrowing owl can excavate a tunnel, but is most often found living in the abandoned burrow of a prairie dog in North America. Unlike other owls, the burrowing owl is active during the day, hunting in cool early evening.

The barn owl nests and breed in barns. Most other owls use hollowed out trees. They line their nests with grass then lay from 2-12 round eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs and then hunt to find food for their young.

In Classical times, the owl was representative of the Goddess Athena and wisdom.

Owl Facts:

The elf owl of southwestern deserts is North America’s smallest owl, and is about the size of a sparrow.

The great gray owl is the biggest owl in stature, but weighs less than two other large owl species, the great-horned owl and the snowy owl. The great gray is native to Canada and the northwestern Pacific states.

A screech owl is named for its call, which is a quavering whistle of descending notes or a monitone.

Owls that are typically found all year long throughout the United States include: the screech owl, the barred owl, the great-horned owl and the barn owl.The saw-whet owl, long-eared owl and the short-eared owl spend the winter in southern states but fly north for the summer months where they nest and breed.

(Information provided in today’s piece is from: “The Owls’ Eyes Have It,” in A Journey for All Seasons published by The Nature Conservancy, 2000; and  365 Days of Nature and Discovery by Reynolds, Gates and Robinson, Harry N. Abrams Inc: New York, New York. 1994.)

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