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  • Owls belong to a group of birds that includes about 205 species.

  • Many species of owls have special flight feathers adapted for silent flight.

  • Owls are unable to move their eyes within their sockets to a great extent, which means they must turn their entire head to see in a different direction.

  • Owlets will stay in the nest box for about 49 – 54 days before they are ready to fly.

  • Dead tree snags are important to cavity nesters like screech-owls. In the United States, there are about 85 species of birds and 45 species of mammals that use natural tree cavities as nests and roosts.

  • Barn owls have forward-facing eyes, an adaptation that gives them binocular vision.

Owls in our Midst

By Debra Firmani

The owl's many mysterious calls, glowing eyes, unusual shape, and stealthy flight ability can be both fascinating and spooky, but at the bottom of these intriguing trademarks is effective evolution. With a fossil record 66 million years long, owls are one of the oldest groups of living birds. Scientists think some owls even descended from small dinosaurs, but no matter who their ancestors were, time has served these birds well. Nearly every aspect of an owl's current form contributes to his ability to capture prey.

The owl's large, reflective eyes are huge in proportion to its body, and produce the best night vision of any animal. The soft feathers surrounding the eyes funnel sounds into highly sensitive ears, enabling an owl to hear prey hidden beneath snow or even underground. A great gray owl can hear a beetle running through grass a 100 feet away or a mouse squeaking at a distance of half a mile.

While most birds have around seven neck vertebrae, an owl has 14, allowing him to turn his head 180 degrees to the right or left to track sound quickly. The softness and structure of owl feathers muffle the noise of flight so owls can approach prey without being detected. Once prey is spotted, the animal is securely grasped in an owl's powerful talons and carried easily back to the roost with the help of strong, broad wings that are large in relation to the owl's body.

Where to Look for Owls

Owls can be found on every continent except Antarctica and in nearly all types of habitat, but their solitary and nocturnal habits, as well as the effectiveness of their camouflage, often make them difficult to spot. Twenty-one of the more than 140 known species of owls live in North America. Though most owls prefer to stay far away from humans, barn owls and screech owls often live near human settlements because rats and mice are plentiful wherever people live.

Owls choose roosting spots that are well-hidden and protected from the weather. Territories vary with the size of the species, the number of offspring typically produced, and the area's food supply. A great horned owl may need a territory of up to 1,000 acres, while a great gray owl may need only a few hundred square feet.
A telltale sign that owls are living nearby is the pellet, a by-product of owl digestion. Owls eat their prey whole. They have difficulty digesting hair, feathers, and bones, so they compact these unusable materials into a pellet, which they then spit out. The type of pellet varies with the type of owl, and to a trained observer, a pellet can reveal not only the owl's species but also what the bird ate.

How You Can Help Owls

Although crows and squirrels eat owlets if they can, the principal killers of adult owls are human beings. Many owls found dead have been shot, trapped, hit by cars, or electrocuted on power lines. Humans also alter owl habitats, and the effect of insecticides on the food chain threatens owl survival. The most common cause of owl death, and the main threat to owlets, is starvation. Up to 50% of owlets fail to survive the period when they learn to hunt for food.

We can help owls by preserving their natural habitats and using organic methods rather than chemicals to eliminate agricultural pests. We must offer them a healthy ecosystem and a safe food supply. Preserve old, hollow trees and build owl nesting boxes in protected places. With our assistance, these important and impressive creatures will continue to live among us for millennia to come, protecting our crops, serving as symbols of wisdom, and filling us with wonder.

Debra Firmani is the former editor of Wildlife Lands, the HSWLT newsletter.

 

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