Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Owls - Masters of the Night

Athenian tetradrachama, 5th cen. B.C.
Owls are birds of the night. Their nocturnal vigilance was often associated with the studious scholar or the wise elder and made them symbols of wisdom and learning. The Greek goddess of wisdom and learning was Athena; one of her symbols was the owl. The ancient coins of Athens  carried the image of an owl as a sign of the patron goddess who vigilantly watched over the city. The owl was the Little Owl; in an attempt to increase their wisdom, some ancient philosophers ate the Little Owl, hoping to introduce the owl’s attributes of intelligence into their own persons. But they did not know what part of the bird contained the wisdom, so they ate the whole thing.

Athena with Owl, Louvre
The association of the owl with wisdom and learning is still present in a few centers of learning. Temple University in Philadelphia terms itself the “Owls,” while the medieval-style buildings of nearby Bryn Mawr College are decorated with owls. In the corner of Bryn Mawr’s Great Hall, a statue of Athena and her owls receive offerings around exam time.

Owls have large, forward-facing eyes. When we do see a live owl, it appears alert. It surveys its realm with attention and vigilance. It looks intelligent. It looks “wise as an old owl.”

But are owls wise? One writer put it succinctly: “To put it kindly, owls are no wiser than they need to be, i.e., not very.”

Owls are wise enough not to “rotate their heads through 360 degrees as is commonly supposed and which would in the event result in owls heads coming clean off and bouncing about all over the place.” (owlpages.com ) Owls cannot rotate their eyes in their sockets and have compensated by developing extra vertebrae in their necks which allow them to turn their heads about 270 degrees. However, they rarely turn their heads more than 180 degrees. In other words, an owl can look to its left by turning its head to the right but prefers not to.

Owls are primarily night hunters and are superbly equipped for their task Their eyes and ears are adapted to finding prey in the dark. Their feathers are designed for silence. They are the stealth flyers of the bird world.

Owls cannot “see” in the dark. A dead mouse in a totally darkened room went undiscovered by a Barn Owl. But an owl can see in light levels so low that we would be rendered totally blind. Light is measured in “lux”. The lowest number of lux in which humans can see is 37,000. Experiments on a Tawny Owl revealed that the lowest number of lux at which it was able to see was seven!

Or, consider the ears: The ears are asymmetrically located in the skull. The right ear is higher than the left ear. The ear openings are differing shapes. This means that sound reaches each ear a split second apart, enabling the owl to “triangulate” the location of its prey, pinpointing a sound to within ten millimeters with no aid from sight whatsoever. The flat face of the owl, formed by feathers, acts like a satellite dish to capture and direct sound to the ears. Some owls are capable of finding prey by sound alone. An experiment put live mice in a totally darkened room with a Barn Owl. Using hearing alone, the Barn Owl caught the mice every single time.

Barred Owl
The most common owls in Vermont are both nocturnal hunters: Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl. The call of the Barred Owl can be heard throughout our eastern forests; it prefers heavily wooded swamps, hemlock or pine forests. On many occasions I have kayaked on Sunset Lake on a summer evening. Nearly every time I have heard the distinctive call of the Barred Owl: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you allll?” It is not uncommon to hear a duet from this very vocal owl.

Daytime sightings of the Barred Owl are uncommon, but not unusual. It happens most often in the winter when food may be scarce, or under deep snow cover, or both. A Barred Owl active during the day is a hungry owl. It may also be a young owl which did not have time to hone its hunting and survival skills before winter arrived to make the task of finding food even more difficult.

The Barred Owl is one of the few owls which will reveal itself to humans. In “The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont,” 1985, the Barred Owl is described this way: “A gentle creature with an engaging personality, the Barred Owl can be quite tame and curious even in the wild. One individual raised at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science’s raptor care facility in Woodstock returned there each winter for four years after his release, greeting his former benefactors with hoots, and swooping down to pluck mice from their hands.”

Great Horned Owl
One will often hear expressed something akin to affection for the Barred Owl. Affection is rarely expressed toward the second most common owl in Vermont, the Great Horned Owl. What one hears in relation to the Great Horned Owl is awe. Edward Forbush begins his description of this species this way: “The Great Horned Owl is not only the most formidable in appearance of all our owls, but it is the most powerful. The Great Gray Owl and the Snowy Owl may appear larger, but the Great Horned Owl exceeds them in courage, weight, and strength. Indeed, it little regards the size of its victim, for it strikes down geese and turkeys many times its weight, and has even been said at times to drive the Bald Eagle away from its aery and domicile its own family therein.”

Great Horned Owl - John James Audiubon
The Great Horned Owl (its “horns,” are feather tufts) is the “winged tiger of the woodlands.”Again, Forbush: “The Great Horned Owl is no respecter of persons. It kills weaker owls from the Barred Owl down, most of the hawks and such nocturnal animals as weasels and minks. It is the most deadly enemy of the Eastern Crow, taking old and young from their nests at night and killing many at their winter roosts. Game birds of all kinds, poultry, a few small birds, rabbits, hares, squirrels, gophers, mice, rats, woodchucks, opossums, fish, crawfish and insects are all eaten by this rapacious bird. It is particularly destructive of rats.”

Fishers often get blamed for the disappearance of domestic cats, but it could just as well be the work of a Great Horned Owl. They rule the night, with no natural enemies. Outside of your  home, both of these predators are in their home. Your cat is no match for either. The best way to protect your cat is to keep it indoors.

One early winter morning, I heard through my open window distant hoots: “Who’s awake? Me, too. Who’s awake. Me, too.” The Great Horned Owl was probably calling for its mate, but he also told me that the night belonged to him. I was glad to let him have it. I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Good birding!


Laurence Butler said...

Very interesting and informative. I'm really hoping to see a barred owl when I go up ti New Hampshire in a couple weeks. The pictures sum up their position well too, as all-seeing guardians in the forest.

Eve said...

Is there any chance I will hear/see a barred owl in the greater Burlington area? Just moved here and they are my favorite.

eileeninmd said...

Great post and photos I love any kind of owl. I see and hear mostly the Great Horned owl and the Barred owl and a few Screech owl in my neighborhood.

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