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Owls surrounded by myth

Article Date: 2005-02-24   Source:   Comments: 4

By Susan Atteberry Smith

Springfield, Missouri, U.S.A. - Mysterious by nature, silent in flight and nocturnal, the owl is a subject of either fascination or fright.

With a haunting call that sounds like a philosophical question - ''Who?'' - and with large, unmoving eyes, this particular bird of prey has been at the heart of myths and superstitions for thousands of years.

''Owls are fascinating,'' says Bob Ball, a Greater Ozarks Audubon Society member who with his wife, Ruby, recently led an evening walk in search of owls at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center. "They've been fascinating to people ever since prehistoric times. They've found drawings on cave walls of owls."

Ancient Greeks considered an owl flying over an army at dawn to be a sign of upcoming victory. And some Ozarks settlers believed the hooting of an owl near home-sweet-cabin meant death was close by.

Yet besides snakes, owls are the most misunderstood animals in the wildlife kingdom, according to Jeff Cantrell, a naturalist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"A lot of people believe they're bad luck and bad omens. Owls aren't that wise, and that's another misnomer.

"Actually, the crows and bluejays are (the) really, really smart (birds)."

Whether your take on owls is swayed by science or folklore, now is a good time to learn more about them: While robins are known as the harbingers of spring, owls are actually the earliest nesters. Four species of owl live year-round in Missouri: the great horned owl, the barred owl, the screech owl and the barn owl.

"They've already attracted their mates," Cantrell says. "Now's when people really become aware of owls."

Supernatural senses

Superstitions may cause some people to be wary of owls, but in reality, the birds pose no threat to humans.

In fact, it's the other way around, as native grasslands become scarce and the rodents that owls eat to survive become poisoned through our attempts at pest control.

But one myth has a smidgen of fact behind it: The owl's natural attributes do seem almost supernatural. What they lack in smarts, not to mention sense of smell, they make up for with uncanny vision and hearing.

With a round head and eyes largely out of proportion to the rest of its body, the owl has fantastic eyesight, according to Cantrell.

"If you look at the head of that owl, their eyes are the same size as ours, but of course their head is so much smaller, so by proportion their eyes are huge," he says.

Not only that, but owl eyes have seven times the number of rod cells that human eyes have, making them incredible receptors of the world around them.

It's a world they can hear very, very well, too - in surround sound, 24/7.

"Their hearing is their most keen sense, and it's the sense they most rely on," Cantrell says.

Asymmetrical ears - the right one pointing up, the lower one on the left pointing down - allow the owl to zoom in on the origin of sound like "two satellite dishes pointing different directions," Cantrell says.

Even if it's coming from underground.

"It can hear a mouse 1 foot below snow," he says.

If owl eyesight and hearing are supernatural, the way they get around without making a sound can be downright spooky. The edges of an owl wing are soft and feathered, Cantrell says: "When that wing touches the air, it makes absolutely no sound at all."

And thus the owl's prey doesn't have time to predict its own demise.

Between its hearing and flying alone, "the barn owl is so efficient at sound that it can hunt in complete, total darkness," notes Bob Ball.

Where to spy owls

People can find owls wherever their prey live - and they shouldn't assume that is out in the country.

The most common Missouri owl, and the largest, the great horned owl is quite comfortable in the city. Especially - and this doesn't help the owl's image as a bad omen - in and around cemeteries.


Well, a cemetery is rodent heaven. Call the graveyard rat "urban cuisine" for the great horned owl.

Cantrell is reluctant to disclose the locations of cemeteries where he has seen great horned owls because he doesn't want people to bother them.

"We don't want birds disturbed, no matter what.

"A great horned owl will defend its nest," he warns. "They'll swoop at you and stuff."

It's a sobering thought, considering the great horned's adult height of 2 feet and its 4-foot wingspan.

Ruby Ball also reports spying the species in a Springfield cemetery and city parks.

In the countryside, those on the lookout for owls should watch for clues like crowds of crows or the presence of hawks.

"When crows are throwing a fit, mobbing, they're usually mobbing a hawk or an owl," Cantrell says. It's all squawk and little action, since the owl will turn around after dark and, without compunction, eat a pesky crow.

Also be on the lookout for hawks, who have a sort of time-share arrangement with owls in regards to their nests.

"For every red-tailed hawk you see, that's the day shift," Cantrell says. "There's a night shift in the same habitat, and that's the great horned owl."

Calling the birds

When Ruby and Bob Ball prowl for owls, they go out at dusk, because owls are nocturnal unless they've had a bad night of hunting and need to leave the nest for food during the day.

They take with them flashlights and a tape recorder with owl calls on it. The Balls' tape holds calls of smaller as well as larger owls: There is a logic to calling owls, whether by mouth or machine.

"You always want to play the smaller owls first," Ruby says, "because if the smaller owls hear a great horned owl (call), they're going to hide."

Out on the prowl, the Balls move quietly, often standing still and waiting. They try not to talk to each other.

Sometimes, the taped calls work their charm and they see what they came to see: an owl in its natural habitat.

"You often get them to answer back, and sometimes they will come and check you out," Ruby says.

As a potential mate?

"Either that, or they're trying to check if another owl is invading their territory."

The Balls have found several owls over the years, and the couple considers it a treat to discover them. Though they're by nature secretive and cautious, the owls don't usually mind being discovered, either.

"Unless you're acting like a mouse or calling them like a competitor, they really ignore you pretty well," Ruby adds.

Close encounters

Birders who seek out owls do report some success in getting close to the animals.

Once, 34 gregarious short-eared owls on vacation from parts north of here greeted Cantrell and a group of other birders on a field trip to a prairie. Short-eared owls lived in Missouri a long time ago, when native prairies were prevalent.

Cantrell recalls the beauty of the short-eared owls that day.

"They fly close to investigate you, and they bark," he says.

Out at twilight at Bois D'Arc Conservation Area a few years ago, the Balls heard the call of a screech owl and assumed it came from 100 yards away.

One of the birders with them shone a flashlight. A screech owl - the smallest of Missouri's owls - was only 5 yards away.

"The screech owl has a surprisingly soft call," Ruby Ball says.

More recently, the Balls in their capacity as Audubon Society members answered a call from a mobile home park resident who found a young great horned owl on the ground under a tree.

The resident wanted to put the bird back into its nest, but the Balls, watching the owl snap its beak and hiss, decided it could help itself: "It was really ferocious," Bob Ball says.

An accomplished photographer, he made sure to take a portrait of the youngster before he left.

Sure enough, the owl flew up to its nest the next day.

'Incredibly important'

Like any living creature, the owl has its place.

Ever wonder what could eat a skunk? That would be the great horned owl, at the top of the nocturnal food chain. Because it can't smell worth a hoot, it will gladly dine on odorous fare.

"They are the only predator of adult skunks," Cantrell says.

And the barn owl, with its heart-shaped facial markings, earns its keep in the ecosystem by devouring rodents.

Says Cantrell: "There's no better mousetrap than the barn owl."

Barton County, where Cantrell is stationed, has a stable population of barn owls. Most counties don't: The species is endangered in Missouri. The gradual disappearance of old-fashioned wooden barns, the favored habitat of these owls, is one contributing factor. To solve that habitat dilemma, the Department of Conservation provides "blueprint" plans for anyone who cares to build a nest for the species.

Secondhand poisoning is another reason the birds are in decline. Landowners use poison to kill mice, the barn owl eats the sick mice - and the barn owl in turn gets sick, Cantrell explains.

The poison accumulates in the owl and "might not so much kill them, but it makes them weak, and when they're weak, raccoons can get them easily," he says. Or, he adds, poisoned owls might not survive the winter.

"Hopefully, if a farmer knows they have barn owls, they'll just hand the job (of killing rodents) over to the barn owl and not the poison," Cantrell says.

Although farmers typically don't like the "whitewash" of waste that barn owls leave on the rafters, Cantrell and other conservationists remind them of how rare barn owls are, how "this is really cool you have this on your property."

It's "basic ecology," Cantrell adds. "Owls are incredibly important."

Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from and placed here for comment. is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.

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On 2007-11-17, from Desoto Missouri wrote: "I love owls and this article was great! It explained alot of things I didnt know about owls in Missouri. I would love to get the blueprints to building homes for the Barn Owl. Thanks for such an enlightning article!"

On 2011-03-28, from St. Louis, MO wrote: "Thank you for the wonderful article. Awareness to the public can only increase sensitivity to these magnificent birds of prey. I would like to get a copy of the blueprints for Barn Owl homes. If not be given a link where I could find them. Thank you."

On 2011-05-12, wrote: "I think the one who wrote this is wrong about the intelligence of Owls.
They may not be willing to do tricks for us like a crow could be trained to do, but they are much more intelligible than most would give them credit for.

On 2014-06-05, Samantha wrote: "Are owls as intelligent as we think? Or are they thought of as "wise" because of their association with a certain ancient greek figure? and because of their "bookish look"?"

Comments are closed for this article.

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