By Sally Griffin
My first face-to-face encounter with an owl occurred when my husband and I decided at the last minute to head down to Taos. The only place available at our favorite bed and breakfast was an old sheepherder’s homemade camper, parked behind the main building. It actually was quite cozy.
The bed was a mattress positioned above the cab of an old World War II troop carrier. But it had a sunroof right above your head – and when I say right above, I mean inches above.
We had settled in for the night and were talking softly about what we wanted to do the next day. Suddenly, a ghostly white face with huge eyes was examining us from inches away. Before, I could run away screaming, my husband laughed and identified the face as belonging to a barn owl. Then we heard a scribbling noise on the roof and she disappeared for minute, only to return almost immediately.
This occurred several times, until we figured out that she had a caught a mouse that she was carrying back to her nest. Evidently, we were so interesting that she temporarily forgot about the mouse in her curiosity to see what was going on in the camper. Eventually, we no longer seemed exciting and she gathered up her mouse and flew away into the night.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the odds are that we all have some owls living nearby. Able to thrive almost anywhere in the United States, some of them are equally at home in the wilderness or suburban settings. Colorado has 14 different types of owls: 1) Flammulated, the smallest owl at 2.1 ounces; 2) Northern Pygmy, which is not much bigger and is diurnal, as opposed to nocturnal; 3) Northern Saw-Whet, whose name indicates how it sounds; 4) Boreal, whose diet is primarily the re-backed vole; 5) Burrowing, which is commonly found in Prairie Dog burrows; 6) Western Screech, whose name also indicates how it sounds; 7) Eastern Screech; 8) Long Eared, who makes its home in the widest range of elevations in Colorado; 9) Short-Eared, who nests in the ground; 10) Barn, who is named because of his fondness for nesting in man-made structures; 11) Spotted, who likes canyons and cliffs; 12) Great Horned, who has the most varied diet of any North American owl or hawk; 13) Snowy, which comes south occasionally and is the only other diurnal owl in Colorado; and 14) Barred, which is usually just a visitor, but there are indications it could be the next permanent Colorado owl specie.
As nocturnal predators, owls are superb. A barn owl can see prey with night vision that is 35 times below the lowest level light that humans can see. Owls’ eyes are fixed in their sockets, which limits their field of vision. This is probably why they rotate their heads up to 270 degrees. Using only their hearing, barn owls can even hunt in total darkness. Ornithologists think that, because one ear is higher than the other, they can triangulate sounds by tilting their heads up and down and from side to side. A barn owl’s ears are huge and located on a face that is designed to collect sound. They can hear a mouse from as far away as 400 yards.
Owls don’t want to expend any energy that they don’t have to. They usually do their nesting in nests that have been built by other large birds or in other spaces that fit their needs. This may be the reason you may see them being harried by other birds. This nesting behavior included a nesting pair of owls at the garden center at Lowe’s in Colorado Springs. Lowe’s worked with wildlife officers to make sure the owls had a safe location in the garden center and the mating pair produced three owlets. The owls served, both, as an attraction and to take care of the destructive rabbit population that came in to the Center from the adjoining fields.
Having a loud voice enables owls to command large territories without having to expend energy chasing away intruders. Great Horned owls have territories of over a square mile. Northern Pygmy Owls have whistles that can be heard from a half-mile away. According to Wild Birds Unlimited, Great Horned Owls make a noise like you are saying, very slowly, “Who’s awake? Me, too!” Of course, what I have heard sounds more like “whooo...whooo…who…who.”
Their near-silent flight enables owls to ambush even those prey who know they are near. Their feathers are softened at the tips, which reduces any wind noise. I have experienced being strafed by a Great Gray Owl. It was very early morning when my husband and I were finding our way down a long driveway in an oak forest. Suddenly, there was a displacement of the air and the sense of something large above our heads – understandable, since the wingspan of a Great Gray Owl can be almost six feet.
Sure enough, we used our flashlight to spot the landing of a large female onto a branch above and slightly in front of us. She was clearly concerned about what we were doing in her territory. But, while she watched us closely, she allowed us to proceed without further hindrance.
Many cultures all over the world have associated owls with death and the supernatural. This is probably because owls hunt at night and seem to float silently through the darkness. They have booming voices that seem to come from several directions at once. Their upright posture and forward-facing eyes give owls the appearance of ghostly humans. But in fact, like Lowe’s, we should be glad to have them. Pretty much all they need are a few trees or a barn-like structure, some open areas for hunting and an abundance of prey. Their first menu choice is rodents, but they will also dine on rabbits and skunks when these creatures come out at dusk or dawn.
Tina Mitchell, a CU researcher, says: “In reality, owls deserve our respect and deep appreciation. Without the keen skills of these mighty nocturnal hunters, the rodent population might now be running the world while we sleep. Who’s awake, indeed …”