Throughout history, owls have been surrounded in myth and legend. We humans tend to make up stories about that which we do not understand, and given the owl’s secretive lifestyle they have been the obvious choice for haunting ghost stories for centuries.
Some cultures believe owls are the bringers of life, some believe they are the bringers of death. Some believe if an owl lands on your roof, you must tear it down and rebuild it! Some believe that eating owl eggs will make you go bald - and there are dozens more interesting legends concerning these mysterious birds. The legends are different depending on where they came from, but most all cultures agree that there is mystery and even magic associated with these amazing birds and have historically connected owls with spiritual intelligence and even immortality.
In actuality, these animals are simply intriguing, perfectly adapted night-time hunters in search of the rodent that is a little slow on the uptake. Here in Georgia, we have four main types of owls that share our back yards and woodlands. Each of these could use a little more understanding and even some help with real estate issues they’re facing.
The Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Barn Owl and Eastern Screech Owl are the most common nocturnal raptors in this area. It may surprise you to learn that owls do not build nests. They depend on old, decaying trees with hollows (or cavities) to raise their young. Since the southeast supplies more timber for harvest than any other country in the world, habitat destruction could mean owl destruction.
Great Horned Owls are the largest owls in the Southeast. They routinely nest in old hawk nests and will adapt to nearly any habitat. These birds are considered "generalists", because they will generally eat anything smaller than themselves! They have the tastebuds, and the strength it takes, to prey on larger mammals than most raptors do - including opossums, raccoons and even skunks. They nest in the deep winter, they mate for life and make a soulful "Hoo Hoo" sound that travels through the night air. Some say their hoots are chilling - and they certainly are to any small mammal that might be in the area! These birds have earned the nickname "Tigers of the Sky" and come by it honestly.
Eastern Screech Owls are the smallest owls that live in Georgia. They are only about the size of your hand, but they are certainly mighty despite their small size. These birds don't actually screech like their name implies. Rather they have a whistle or a trilling sound that closely resembles that of a dove. Coming from the woodline at dusk, their eerie noise could be mistaken for a ghostly call. These little fellas dine on small rodents, amphibians and insects - one of their favorite midnight snacks are cockroaches! They nest in the cavities of dead trees, many of which are created by woodpeckers. As such, they will readily take to a nest box that mimics those cavities - and they make wonderful backyard neighbors.
Barn Owls are very interesting and have characteristics that are different from all other owls. They are mostly white, with a very distinctive heart-shaped facial disc. They are very elusive by nature and they fly completely silently - which makes them nearly impossible to find. These birds have developed a habit of nesting in the rafters of old barns, thus their name. They are "specialists" and most often dine on voles, moles and small mice. The two biggest problems they face are finding an appropriate nest site and avoiding pesticide toxicity. The old growth forests that produce larger cavities for nesting, as well as the old barns they've adapted to, are vanishing. And pesticide use is a major problem near the farmlands where they hunt. If a rodent has been poisoned, and the owl eats the rodent, the bird is now faced with the dangers of toxicity as well.
Barred Owls - which are a different species that BARN owls - have dozens of vocalizations, most of which sound like monkeys. The “who cooks for you who cooks for y’all” chant is the most recognized noise emitted from these teddy bears of the air. Barred owls live in riparian habitats or wet areas, thus they feed on slippery, slimy things such as frogs, snakes and even crawfish. Some barred owls will eat so many crawfish that their belly feathers turn pink! So if you wake up in the night, believing that you’re hearing monkeys, then you see a pink owl fly by, you’ve not lost your mind. You’ve simply been visited by one of nature’s most efficient nocturnal hunters.
Barred owls, traditionally, are a southeastern species. They are now moving north and west into spotted owl territory for the first time in recorded history, due in some part, to the loss of our own old growth forests. Officials in northwestern regions are faced with the delicate decision of whether or not to remove (terminate) barred owls from endangered spotted owl territory in order to preserve their own native owl species.
This is a great reminder that what we do (or don’t do) with our back yards matters, in this case as far away as Washington State or Oregon. In this world of rapidly shrinking habitat conservation efforts are crucial to the survival of our wild Earth. This will only be achieved through understanding, and understanding begins at home.
Some things you can do to ensure the survival of our magnificent owls:
• Leave up an old, dead tree or snag… there is more life in a dead tree than a living one! • Put up an owl nest box, breeding season is right around the corner. This is the perfect time to invite these birds into your yard! • Make a brush pile! This makes a wonderful condo for lizards, mice and snakes… and provides an all night buffet for our owls! • Become involved! Learn all you can about our night time hunters and share the information with others, inspire a greater awareness of our living world. • Take it one step further and vote for legislation that protects our wildlife and other natural resources!