Let's Talk About Birds: Owls

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

It's midnight on the last day of October. You are walking, alone, down a dark, lonely country road. The light of a full moon casts an eerie glow around heavy cloud cover, which is getting thicker by the moment. A gust of wind makes you shudder. You tighten your jacket and quicken your step. As you try not to let your imagination get the best of you, the clouds cover the moon, and a cold, heavy rain begins. You spy a long-abandoned barn that looks like a safe place to wait out the storm.

The barn door creaks as it opens. Your heart races. You step through the entrance, and freeze. A blood-curdling scream from inside the barn pierces the night. You look up to see a pale, ghostly figure swooping toward you. The figure screams. You scream back, and duck. The figure flies silently overhead. You uncover your eyes to spy a ray of moonlight illuminating the flying figure ... which immediately illuminates your mind. You sink to the floor, and exhale in relief. The figure wasn't a ghost. It was an owl -- a barn owl.

With its rounded head, dark eyes, pale breast and buff-colored back, it's easy to mistake the barn owl for a ghost or goblin. Unless you are a small rodent, you have nothing to fear from this or any of Pennsylvania's native owls.

Pennsylvania is home to eight different species of owl, ranging in size from the Northern saw-whet owl (7-8 inches in length) to the Great horned owl (18-24 inches in length). The state sometimes plays host to Snowy owls, which migrate southward when their favorite foods, hare and lemming, are in short supply.

Pennsylvania's owls are armed with sharp talons, superb camouflage, a keen sense of hearing, and incredible night vision. Soft, comb-like feathers at the edges of their wings make their flight virtually soundproof. Silent flight combined with their other adaptations makes owls extremely successful nighttime hunters.

Prey consists of small mammals, such as mice, voles and shrews, with insects and small birds supplementing the diet. Of course, prey items vary among species. Great-horned owls have been known to hunt and eat skunk!

An owl swallows its prey whole if it's small enough. If not, it uses its hooked beak to pull off bite-sized pieces. Either way, owls eat every part of the capture -- even bones, fur and feathers. Since these items cannot be digested, they are compacted in the bird's muscular stomach (gizzard). Like a cat coughing up a furball, owls regurgitate a pellet 8-12 hours after every feeding. Because owl pellets provide clues as to what owls are eating in an area, the pellets can be broken apart to assess the number and kinds of food present. During an owl-pellet dissection class at the National Aviary, one student discovered the bones and skulls of six different shrews in one pellet!

Although we don't recommend that you walk alone at midnight down a lonely country lane, entering long-abandoned barns, we do encourage you to explore your own backyards after dark for telltale signs of owls in our region. We highly recommend that you attend one of the National Aviary's Owl Connections. Available daily, and designed for small groups, Owl Connections put you nose to beak with these awesome hunters of the night, and provide a great way to learn about and visit with owls from across the globe. More information on Owl Connections can be found at www.aviary.org .

On behalf of all of your National Aviary friends -- especially the owls -- we wish you a safe and happy Halloween -- or as we like to say it, a Happy "Owl-O-Ween!"



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