Owlin' in the Woods
group of students and I were once exploring some ruins. These were not ancient ruins, which are so often admired as monuments to the achievements of man, but recent ruins of maybe some 60 years, true monuments to the power of nature. These were still recognizably greenhouses, but the glass was long gone, and vines crawled up the sides and around the empty window frames. A single mature tree grew out of the middle of one of the long, low buildings, spreading its branches well beyond the limits of the former roof, while younger trees pushed their way through the floor, past potting tables, over long abandoned seedling trays, and reached for sunlight. The remains of the roofline dipped, mirroring the ground below where the foundation had sunken, shifted, or simply given way under the long-standing weight of the concrete floor.
We were careful to step lightly on broken glass, through cat-brier, and over debris-covered ground. The students were quiet, perhaps concentrating on walking through the mess, perhaps contemplating the strength of nature (we teachers are a hopeful lot!). One paused, suddenly grabbing my arm, and pointed toward a small branch, where, oblivious to our presence, a screech owl slept. The owl was perhaps 10 feet from us, and nearly perfectly camouflaged in the thick of the wooded area surrounding the ruins. His gray feathers blended with the gray of the tree-trunks, and his speckled pattern ran into the shadows cast by the leaves. And he slept on.
I brought the students here to show an example of succession—usually, field becomes forest. In this case, I wanted to show how forests spread relentlessly when left alone, even into man-made structures. First, the plants grow tall, and seeds are carried to an area by wind, birds, or other animals. Small mammals, like mice, moles, and voles, and birds, like sparrows and other perching birds, find their way into well sheltered overgrown areas quickly. The predators soon follow—and owls are fierce predators—but they often remain unseen. Seeing the predator was, like many memorable sightings during nature hikes, an unplanned bonus.
Owls are also silent predators. Unique among bird species, owls have noiseless feathers, and when they fly, they are rarely heard by their prey. An owl feather is combed at the edge, and this dampens the sounds of flight. If you find a feather, you can tell if it is an owl feather both by the combs, and by swinging it through the air. A typical feather makes a sound; an owl feather does not. Click here for a photo of an owl’s flight feather.
Owls have a few other advantages over their prey. We have all seen pictures of owls emphasizing their large eyes and flexible necks. An owl can turn its head in an arc of about 270 degrees or more, depending on the species, from the front. This is because they have 14 neck bones; we humans have only 7 and find that an arc of about 90 degrees in either direction is our limit. Owls have big eyes for great night vision, and an owl’s eyes are on the front of its face. This allows the owl to use binocular vision for depth perception and to view the prey head on as he approaches it. Take a close look at the birds at your feeder. Their eyes are on the sides of their faces. What advantage would that give to a small bird?
An owl’s face is also specially shaped for hearing, but the tufts on top of the heads of many owls are not ears. Birds have ear holes covered by feathery flaps. In most owls, the feathers in the face surrounding the eyes make a disc which includes the hidden ears, and acts as a sound amplifier. The ears, which are at slightly different heights in the sides of the face, can even help an owl to tell how distant the prey is! In a barn owl, this disc is heart-shaped, while in most other owls, the disc is shaped rather like a figure eight around the eyes.
Owl feet are also unique in the bird world. One toe is reversible, and can be used with the front or back toes. This is helpful both for sitting in trees, and for grasping and holding prey. Some owls, like the snowy owl, have feathered feet to help them keep warm. What does it feel like to be on the wrong end of an owl’s feet? Biologist Jim Duncan, in the February 2005 issue of National Geographic Magazine, says it’s “Like being whacked by a two-by-four with nails sticking out of it.” I’ll take his word for it.
Owls in popular culture are nearly always depicted as wise. “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll* center of a Tootsie Pop*?” Asking an owl might not be the best way to find out. Owls don't lick, and they don’t bite and chew their food into small pieces, though they often tear up food for their young. Owls have no teeth for chewing, and most often swallow small prey whole, or slightly shredded if the prey is too large for a single bite. Since fur and bones are hard to digest, the owl regurgitates the leftover parts of its food in a pellet. Sterilized owl pellets are readily available for purchase, but finding one in the wild is thrilling. Last year our young friend Bernadette found a perfect owl pellet at the base of a spruce tree. We took it apart (and washed our hands afterwards) and found the remains of a meadow vole. If you choose to purchase an owl pellet kit, it will usually come with a chart of bones and teeth so you may identify the owl’s victim.
Be careful! Sometimes what appears to be an owl pellet is not an owl pellet at all, but the dried scat of another predator. Once while at a lecture on ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, I saw a woman carrying a coffee can containing what she thought was the biggest owl pellet ever found. As she pulled the item from the can—and pulled and pulled—a musky odor filled the air, and the lecturer told the horrified woman that she had a can full of dried fox scat! In her defense, they can be similar in content, if not size.
Over the years, our family has enjoyed many owlish books, and while cartoon owls are wise, literary owls are often endearing. Real life owls can be, too, though when taken from the wild, their behavior is often quirky. My college ornithology professor has an owl who is calm and gentle until he hears laughter, which makes him shriek and hide. Jean Craighead George author of My side of the Mountain, takes on the topic of owls and conservation in There’s an Owl in the Shower, a story inspired in part on her family’s true experience with an owl. The George family’s adventures with owls and many other animals are recounted in There’s a Tarantula in my Purse. The chapter called “The Screech Owl Who Liked Television” is a great example not only of owl behavior, but also of young girl behavior. Another true-to-life owl story is Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat. Owl Moon is a spectacular Caldecott award-winning picture book that will have you “owling” in the nighttime forest.
The literary owl often combines the nature of owls with more human characteristics. Mr. Ocax in Poppy by Avi looks like “death himself” to a mouse. The owls in The Silver Chair meet in a parliament, and carry humans on their backs, though at least one cannot help but hunt, nearly losing his passenger. Breaking far away from owlish stereotype, Lear’s owl in Owl and the Pussycat is in love with a cat, sings, and rides in a boat.
The non-fiction section is a great place to find wonderful photos of owls. While most of us will never climb up a tree to find a nest of owlets, wildlife photographers like Jim Burns (North American Owls) do the work for us, showing us the life of a baby owl in living color, as we sit in our armchairs. Bernd Heinrich’s Owl in the House is an outstanding example of a naturalist’s diary, and goes along with his longer, more scientific, One Man’s Owl. Learn All About Owls with Jim Arnosky, or introduce your pre-schooler to Owl Babies. Recite an owl poem for two voices in the last entry from I Am Phoenix.
Click on a few of the links below and start an owl study. If you can’t find an owl pellet (don’t give up--you never know when you might stumble across one!), buy one and find out what an owl typically eats. This is also a great lesson in mammalian biology, and you won’t have to kill anything before the dissection! Take a night hike, or just listen at night. Look for feathers in the forest. Visit a wild life refuge and see injured owls in rehabilitation. Learn owl calls, and visit owl habitats. Most of all, keep your eyes and ears wide open, and look around—you never know whoooo you might find!
More on Feathers
Changing diet of British barn owls
Regurgitating a pellet (video!)
Owl Pellet Bone Chart (pdf file)
Owl Calls (audio)
How Many Licks? (see the story board)
Owl (shaped) Cookies (yum!!)
Woodsy Owl (USDA Forest Service)
Example of pine cone owl craft
The Moon of the Owls
Just for fun/early readers:
Owl at Home
Sam and the Firefly
Owly fiction, starring owls, or fiction with memorable owl-characters:
There's an Owl in the Shower
Owls in the Family
The Silver Chair
The Complete Tales and Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh
Non-fiction for the young:
All About Owls
Tiger With Wings
How to Spot an Owl
An Owl in the House
The GREAT WHITE OWL OF SISSINGHURST
Non-fiction high school/adult:
Owls Aren't Wise & Bats Aren't Blind
One Man's Owl
Poetry (Lear with three different illustrators; one poetry book for two voices):
The Owl and the Pussycat Board Book
Hilary Knight's The Owl and the Pussycat
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
I Am Phoenix
Night Owl Explorer Pro 5x Night Vision Scope
Great Horned Owl Puppet
Snowy Owl Puppet
Special thanks to the 4Real group for the book list! And thanks, Alice!
Back to MacBeth's Wild Monthly
Copyright 2005 MacBeth Derham.
*Tootsie Roll and Tootsie Pop are registered trademarks of the Tootsie Roll Industries.