By Laura Blum
What happens when an owl loses its voice? It doesn't give a hoot. Ok, now that we've gotten that fowl joke out of the way, what are you doing on Sunday, November 13 at 5 pm? If you're between the ages of 8 and 12, come on out for what's sure to be an unforgettable experience of seeing and hearing wild owls. That is, if we get lucky. Depending on the moon phase, cloud cover and precipitation, our feathered friends will put on more -- or less -- of a show for us.
Just please don't leave it to chance to be warm enough. You´ll want to bundle up with long underwear, boots, down jackets, wool sweaters, hats and mittens. Listening for owls requires standing still, even when it's 40 degrees outside. And please make sure you come in "quiet" clothes, not materials that make rustling or squeaky noises when you move. We're hoping to convene a parliament. (That's the proper term for a group of owls.)
Screeches, wails, shrieks -- Audubon Greenwich naturalists Lindsey DeVito and Brian O'Toole will help crack the mysteries of what these mystical raptors are saying. Maybe we'll understand why they're said to be so wise, at least here in the modern West. This idea dates back to Ancient Greece, if not earlier. The owl was the sacred emblem of Athena, the patroness of Athens, which was a major center of arts and learning. Yet in many cultures around the world, owls are linked with bad omens and death. Traditions come together in the Harry Potter books, where owls bridge the magical and Muggle worlds and are both wise and spooky.
And what do Brian and Lindsey have to say about owls? JCC Greenwich set out to learn just that in the following interview, which is the perfect prep for our big outing.
Q: First things first. Owls are considered birds of prey. Can you tell us what that means?
Lindsey: It’s a bird that hunts and eats lives animal. Birds of prey have talons, or long, strong fingernails, a hooked beak, great eyesight and really good hearing that helps them to locate their prey and eat them. So that makes them different from some of the smaller songbirds that you see around here, like Cardinals and Chickadees and Baltimore Orioles.
Q: Most birds of prey have eyes on the sides of head. Not owls. Take us behind the eyes of this wide-eyed raptor and tell us about their science of perception.
Lindsey: Owls eyes face forward and their are spread pretty far apart to help them judge the distance, size and speed of the prey that they’re going after. Their eyes also tend to be larger to help collect more light and to help them see better. If we had eyes as proportionally big as owls’, they would be about as big as tennis balls. So picture us with two eyes the size of tennis balls. That’s pretty big. And since their eyes are fixed, meaning they can’t move side to side like we can, they have to compensate for that by moving their head or their neck.
Q: Is it true that owls can swivel their heads and necks more than 180 degrees? How does it serve them?
Lindsey: Owls have double the amount of neck bones than we do, so that allows them to move their head 270 degrees one way or the other. That’s almost a full circle! That’s a pretty amazing way to let them to locate their prey without having to actually move. The Great Grey Owl can actually spot a mouse from two football fields away. So they have really great eyesight.
Q: Owls are among the rare animals that have one ear lower than the other. What for?
Lindsey: That’s to help them locate their prey. Their right ear can help them hear noises above where they’re sitting, and their left ear can help them hear noises below where they’re sitting. So it’s just a great way to help them stay in one place and be able to hear noises all around them that they need to be aware of, whether it’s food or some kind of danger out there, like a predator.
Q: How do owls use the feathered disks around each eye to help them hunt?
Brian: Owls that have smaller dark brown eyes have large facial disks to funnel sounds toward their ears. Good examples of that are the Barn Owl and the Great Grey Owl. Don’t expect to see the Great Grey Owl on our Owl Prowl. That’s a very rare owl in Connecticut and one that we’re very, very unlikely to see. So don’t hope for that one. That’s more of a northern bird. These owls have a great sense of hearing. The Barn Owls have oval holes instead of slits and can find their prey in complete darkness. A Great Grey Owl can hear a beetle running on the ground a basketball court length’s away. A tiny beetle crawling along the ground and that guy can hear it -- that shows how amazing owls really are!
Q: What allows owls to fly so silently and why is it so important?
Brian: The main thing is feathers. They’re soft; they have a soft front fringe like a tissue, very light weight. When they’re hunting, the prey cannot hear the noise from their wings flapping and therefore don’t know that they’re coming. Silent flying makes catching food much easier for owls. So if you have a little mouse that’s on the ground and he’s going away, munching on some grass or seeds, he won’t hear that owl swooping down to him. And next thing you know he’s in the owl’s talons.
Q: Owls have particularly sharp talons, or claws. How do they use them?
Brian: Owls use their talons to catch and hold onto their prey. Owls have four toes and when they grasp their prey, two toes go on the front and two toes go to the back for extra grip. That’s so that mouse or vole can’t get away from them. A Great Horned Owl’s grasp is so strong they can snap a woodchuck in half just as easily as we can snap a toothpick in half. Imagine that, a large mammal like a woodchuck that he can snap in half. So that’s an owl you don’t want to mess with!
Q: What are owl pellets and what can we learn about owl behavior from them?
Lindsey: An owl pellet is something that you will come across on the ground, and depending on the size of the owl, it can be about two inches or smaller or larger. Basically it’s a big ball of fur, feathers and bones. What happens is that when an owl catches his prey and rips it apart in small pieces with that hooked beak, he ingests all of that animal -- feathers, bones, meat and all. But his body can’t process all of that, can’t get all of these feathers, bones and meat all the way though. So that goes to a separate compartment below their stomach. And it’s called -- get this -- a “proventriculus.” And in there of these muscles work together and they start to crunch all of the feathers and bones and fur into this nice, tight compact ball.
And now the owl has to get rid of this pellet. So what does it do? It coughs or casts it up and out onto the ground. So we come across these owl pellets and we get to take them apart to actually see what this owl has been eating. That can tell us a lot about where we find different owls living or spending time. Owl pellets are pretty great and you can order them from lots of places from around the country. They sanitize them, they zap them in a microwave oven so that it’s okay to touch.
Q: How many different kinds of owls are there in the world? Which ones call Connecticut home and how do they blend in with the scenery?
Lindsey: There are 164 owl species in the world and they live on every single Continent except Antarctica. In the United States and Canada there are 21 different species of owl. In Connecticut the most common ones hat we’re going to come across are the Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl, the Screech Owl, the Saw-Whet Owl and the Long-eared owl. We have the occasional Short-eared Owls and Barn Owls in some spots of Connecticut and every now and then in the wintertime we get a snowy owl, like the white one from Harry Potter. We might get that down by the shore. And they’ll come down here from places up north like Canada or Maine. They actually think it’s kind of warm here in the wintertime.
Some of the ways that owls can blend in with the scenery is to have the same colors as the scenery. For the ones we have around here, you’ll notice that their feathers are brown and white and grey so they can really blend in, or camouflage, with the trees out there in the forest. But if you’re a Snowy Owl, you’re all white because you spend most of your life in places where there’s lots of snow. So when you’re down on the ground catching your food and trying to move away with it you can blend in with all of the snow around you. Also some of the owls have what we call ear tufts like the Screech Owl or the Great Horned Owl or the Long-Eared Owl and this helps them to camouflage in the trees, especially during the day when they’re kind of sleepy and hanging out.
Q: If we were to prepare a feast for an owl, what would we serve? Do different kinds of owls have favorite foods?
Brian: Owls eat a variety of different animals, including: bats, mice, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, snakes, songbirds, beetles, fish and, believe it or not, even smelly skunks! Different owls eat different foods depending on what part of the world they live in. Our locals here, the screech owl, the barn owl, the great horned owl, they’ll be feeding on rodents, small birds, even frogs and insects, especially for the little Screech Owl -- which come in two color phases, the grey phase and the red phase. So on our Owl Prowl it’s possible, with luck, if we do see an owl, we may see either one of these phases of Screech Owl. So they have a very wide variety of diet -- anything as small as a beetle or even something as large as a Cardinal or a Blue Jay.
Q: More and more of the natural habitat for owls is disappearing. What would we most miss about owls if they were to go the way of the dinosaur?
Brian: For me personally I love owls; I love their secretive behavior, their nature. I love to hear them hooting at night. That’s just such a cool thing about owls. I also like finding owls in the middle of the day. If you go out with a birder like Lindsey or me you can look for them in cavities of trees. You can look for them in dense trees -- places like the Holly Grove in Greenwich Point -- basically any dense vegetation where the owl is going to feel protected from any predators during the day, especially hawks. Hawks and owls don’t get along, so if a hawk finds a roosting owl, he could possibly to make a meal out of him. If you have dense evergreens around your yard in the winter months you want to check through them carefully and you never know, you might find a little owl looking back at you.
Q: During our owl prowl some participants will no doubt be tempted to call out to the wild raptors. Why is this a bad idea?
Brian: I extremely doubt that this group will be calling out. We don’t really encourage anyone to make any type of noises. Loud noises can scare away the owls. So you want to leave it to us to do the calling of the owls. Lindsey and I will be doing different owl calls that night trying lure the owls in. So we want to be very quiet. That’s very important. The owls are very skittish. They’re hearing the call being played back to them. They think it’s another owl in their territory or they think it might be a possible mate. So they’ll be coming in to investigate. So we want all noises at a minimum.
Q: Owls are hardly the quickest birds in the forest. What are some of the defense strategies that make up for their pokiness?
Lindsey: The one time that owls can be very vulnerable to predators is when they’re down on the ground.
Brian: If an owl is going for prey and it’s on the ground getting a mouse or something at night, of course at night foxes are active and coyotes are active. Those are two big predators of owls.
Lindsey: They’re also patient birds. So they’ll sit for a long time and the’ll just look around. They’re very observant. Since they are silent flyers and they have great hearing and great eyesight, they use all those adaptations to make up for maybe being a little bit slower or just sitting around a lot to get that prey and use less energy to chase that prey.
Brian: Owls do not want to be seen or heard. They want to heard when they’re calling for a mate in the spring, but otherwise owls really don’t really want to be found. They’re very secretive. So I wouldn’t call them pokey. They might get offended by that one!
Q: Which questions would you like to ask one another?
Lindsey: What owls do you think we may hear or see on our Owl Prowl in November?
Brian: The first one that I would think that we would see is the Screech Owl. That’s a pretty common owl in Connecticut, especially in our Center. Its owl call is not your typical “Who, Who, Who!” It’s more of a whistle. People say it’s more like a little tiny horse, a tin horse. Hopefully we can see them. Usually when you call the owl, hopefully they come in and that’s when you can shine a flashlight on them. The Great Horned Owl -- we do have a chance of seeing them or hearing them. That’s the biggest owl we have here; that’s the one that can split the woodchucks in half, like we talked about. That’s a fierce predator. That guy is going to be going for the rabbits and the bigger prey. We do have a chance of hearing them. Usually they’re very high up in the trees; they like pine trees. If we’re very lucky, the Barred Owl will call back to us. But if I had to make a bet on it, I’d say the Screech Owl and the Great Horned Owl would be our main targets.
Lindsey: Brian, is it guaranteed that we’re going to hear or see owls?
Brian: Unfortunately, it’s not guaranteed that we‘re see or hear any. Sometimes they’re just not in the mood to be calling. So don’t get your hopes up too much! Also the weather can be a factor. If it’s too windy they’re hard to hear. The owls will just huddle closely on a branch and they’re not going to move around much. You want a very nice, very clear night, very calm night to hear them. We’ll try our best, but no guarantees!
Lindsey: Yeah, so otherwise we’ll just have a nice hike in nighttime, which a lot of people don‘t have the chance to do very often. Audubon Center is a great place to go hiking. We’ll prepare you and give you the tools you need to go on your own owl prowl sometime.
Well, we’re so excited because we love owls so much and Brian knows so much about birds and owling, so I’m excited because I’ve learned a lot too. And we’re so excited to have all of you join us and we’re looking forward to seeing you on November 13.