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February 17, 2020
All through the fall, winter, and spring we on campus have been privileged to hear calls of both the barred and great horned owls. Both rank among the largest of owls in North America. Field guides usually describe their calls as follows: great horned owl, often referred to as the “ hoot” owl—four to six resonant hoots, with rhythms varying with the owl; barred owl—“hoo—hoo—boohoo,” That comes out as a slightly shrill and insistent “Who cooks for you?” The barred owl also sometimes calls during the day.
Their superb sense of hearing makes them “mousers” of the first rank. But both owls feed on a wide variety of animals: insects, mice, squirrels, amphibians, and rabbits. The great horned, slightly larger, and a fearsome hunter, ranges across the entire lower Forty-Eight, plus much of Canada, Alaska, and Mexico. It also has been known to take skunks, crows, porcupines, domestic cats, ospreys, porcupines, and great blue herons, as well as other hawks and owls. All owls cough up pellets of undigested fur, bones, and feathers. Piles of these pellets can build up beneath an owl’s nesting spot.
All owls tend to be solitary outside the breeding season. They choose a variety of nesting sites, including tree hollows, old nests of hawks or crows, or a cliff ledge. The barred owl will come to a nest box if the entrance is at least six inches in diameter. It’s kinda like “Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?” But they prefer nesting sites that are high—between 25-80 feet above the ground.
I don’t know about the veracity of connecting owls with wisdom, but they are patient hunters and incredibly silent in flight—due to the way the ends of their feathers are constructed. They are famous for being able to turn their heads, some as much as 270 degrees! That is forty-five degrees behind looking ether full left or right. A couple of neck anatomical differences between owls and humans make this possible. This trait is helpful because owls cannot moves their eyeballs as we do.
The owl plays a significant role in many native religions and also has a place in the rituals of the culture developed by the Spanish Catholic settlers that came to the American Southwest several centuries ago. This bird, misunderstood by some—and, thus, feared—is a mysterious, masterful, majestic, and magnificent animal!
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