2013-11-07 / Nature

The Life of Owls

By Jack Kelly

Snowy Owl. (Photo by Bob Weaver) Snowy Owl. (Photo by Bob Weaver) Owls have been the subject of myths, fairy tales, legends, and literature for millennia. Steeped in mystery, rumored to have magical powers, and believed by some to be keepers of great knowledge, these winged creatures have been revered in many cultures around the world. The nocturnal nature of most owl species, along with their ability to silently hunt prey, has long intrigued humankind.

Aquidneck Island hosts a number of permanent resident owl breeds, including Great Horned Owls, Barn Owls, Eastern Screech Owls, Barred Owls, and an occasional pair of Long-eared Owls, in various mixed habitats. The months of November through February may bring wintering Short-eared Owls and Snowy Owls south from Canada and the Arctic Circle.

While North American owls vary in size and have different diets, they all have strong, hooked bills and talons which are suitable for capturing, killing, and eating live prey. The eyes of the nocturnal-hunting owl are specially adapted to facilitate night foraging. All owls have round faces that focus sound waves to their very sensitive ears. The ear openings of owls such as the Barn Owl and the Great Grey Owl are extremely asymmetrical, allowing them to pinpoint the location of rodents tunneling under deep snow or moving through high, thick grasses on moonless nights.

Short-eared Owl at Sachuest Point. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Short-eared Owl at Sachuest Point. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Nocturnal owls hunt by stealth in flight, usually taking prey on the ground, or, in the case of smaller owl species, insects on the wing. These silent hunters have serrations on the outer edges of their wing plumage and layers of down between their wing feathers, making their flights almost inaudible.

Owls usually swallow their prey whole, later regurgitating a “pellet” of the bones, fur, and other indigestible parts. Owls have been nicknamed the “Night Watchmen of the Garden” by farmers and gardeners because of the way the predators control pests such as insects and rodents.

Eastern Screech Owl (Photo by Bob Weaver) Eastern Screech Owl (Photo by Bob Weaver) The majority of owl species have cryptic plumage colors in shades of browns, rusts, black, and white. These colors help to camouflage them as they roost by day. Some species have “horns” or large ear tufts that make the owls look bigger and help with camouflage.

Many owls time their breeding to coincide with the peak abundance of prey. Some species such as the Snowy Owl will skip a breeding season if there is a perceived lack of prey for the young owls. Two years ago there was a large southward irruption (mass migration due to a collapse of food supply) of juvenile Snowy Owls. The adults forced the young owls south in search of prey when the Arctic lemming population suddenly and without any known reason collapsed. Snowy Owls, which are diurnal (daytime) hunters, were observed in 33 states. Newport County saw as many as six juvenile Snowy Owls during that time.

Deer mating season has begun and this large buck displays his 10-point seasonal antlers as he forages vegetation in Middletown. (Photo by Rey Larsen) Deer mating season has begun and this large buck displays his 10-point seasonal antlers as he forages vegetation in Middletown. (Photo by Rey Larsen) Local resident owl species will begin their mating and courtship rituals in approximately four to six weeks. The Great Horned Owl, a large nocturnal predator with a body length of two feet and a wingspan of about four feet, is the first owl species to enter its mating season, usually in early December. Great Horned Owl pairs will engage in duets of low hooting, accelerating at first, and then closing with two longer hoos.

Another species that will enter its mating season in December is the Eastern Screech Owl. This diminutive, nocturnal owl can be found in many habitats including highlands, sandhills, forests, orchards, and city parks. It is a versatile bird that readily accepts nesting boxes close to houses where there is a steady supply of food such as mice, small roosting birds, and insects. The average Eastern Screech Owl is 8.5 inches long with a wingspan of 20 inches. The adults of the species may have reddish-brown or gray morph, cryptic plumages, and large ear tufts which make them look larger and provide camouflage. The call of this petite owl is a descending, high-pitched whinny and a purring tremolo, which is usually followed by an even, purring trill. In the 17th and 18th centuries, early colonists believed the call of this owl was a harbinger of bad luck, misfortune, or even the prophesizing of a death in the family. This old wives’ tale is still repeated occasionally today.

ack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. ack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. The Barn Owl also begins its mating season in December. This widespread, but scarce, species occupies open habitats across most of the continental United States. Due to the loss of farm buildings and other nesting and hunting habitats, the Barn Owl is an endangered species in Rhode Island.

The average adult Barn Owl is 16 inches long and has a wingspan of about 42 inches. Most adult males have brown- and caramel-colored wings and pale underparts, with a caramel head border over a bright white facial disk and deep-set dark eyes. Adult females have dark wings, a buff or tawny wash on the breast, and a dark facial disk. The long legs of the Barn Owl set it apart from other owl species. The female may lay eggs over a twoweek period, which in turn means that the young will hatch over a two-week span. Aquidneck Island is home to approximately 10 nesting pairs of Barn Owls. This strictly nocturnal species gives a bone-chilling screeching hiss in flight.

The Norman Bird Sanctuary hosts two guided family “owl prowls” during the month of December. These nighttime walks through the sanctuary may offer a first-hand experience with pairs of courting owls. Reservations are required for these adventures in nature. For more information, visit normanbirdsanctuary.org or call 401-846-2577. For more information on local owl species, visit the Rhode Island Audubon Society at asri.org or call 401-949-5454. Questions on all avian species can be answered at allaboutbirds.org.

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