Posts Tagged ‘Barn Owls’

Owl Identification

April 8, 2009
Barn Owls Painted by Audubon

Barn Owls Painted by Audubon

Beings of only five senses, we are probably surrounded by realities of which we are utterly unaware.

Our evolution has enhanced some of our senses, dulled others, and made some unnecessary.  Dogs, if they were capable of derision, would laugh at our pathetic ability to smell; a falcon would wonder how we can exist as blind as we are; an owl could never imagine a being with such poor hearing; and these are animals who, so far as we can tell, have the same basic five senses we possess.

What more must be happening out there, all around us, of which we know nothing?

Even if we assume that it is nothing but a material universe and that no supernatural power is at work in it, gigantic amounts of reality must be completely unavailable to us.  Literally unimaginable.

The best thing that can be said about our dim perceptions is that they are all we’ve needed to survive.  You can think of our senses as  reducing valves, removing all non-essential information.  A being overloaded with information, unable to sift through it all quickly, would be destined for evolution’s trash bin. Like owls, we constantly survey our environment searching for what we need and watching for danger.

Actual Unretouched Photo of Owl Hunting

Actual Unretouched Photo of an Owl Hunting

Because we are so sense-limited, birders long ago developed the rule that if you can’t see the bird, but hear it and can identify the song, you get to add the bird to your life list.

Which is a good thing when it comes to owls.

Superbly adapted to night, and supremely camouflaged for daytime sleep, owls are more often heard than seen.

To identify owls you must become familiar with the night.  You must dress warmly, sit quietly, be patient, and listen.  And you must be in the right place. Owls are not overly fond of our cities, although you will find them there.  But it is best to get outdoors   into forests and fields and deserts and mountains if you want to meet owls.  Unplowed fields, unlogged forests, unpeopled deserts are the best places to go.

You must take some trouble to get to them but once you do, it is magic when you hear an owl calling in the night.  If you’ve been very still, very quiet, perhaps you have heard the owl’s prey too, scuttling across the canyon’s floor or rustling dead leaves on the forest floor.  Hearing that owl call must strike terror into the small mammals which feed at night and are fed on by the owls. As we discuss in our post about Halloween and Barn Owls, not much sound escapes the acute hearing of an owl.  Their faces and ears magnify and funnel sounds inaudible to us into a superb navigation system that allows them to fly and hunt in the dead of night.

Another Owl Hunting Photo (Or Maybe this is the one of the Balck Hole?)

Another Owl Hunting Photo (Or Maybe this is the one of the Black Hole?)

One can’t describe sounds in words any more than a smell can be explained in words.  No substitute exists for the actual sound waves striking your eardrums and transmitted to your brain.  Cornell University publishes a 2 CD set of the 19 owl species commonly found in North America.  We suggest you buy it — or some other compendium of owl calls — and listen to it before going out on your night time search.  In fact, take the CDs with you and listen to them in headphones while you wait.  You will then have the sounds immediately available if you hear an ambiguous call.  Or an ambiguous owl.


The CD is Voices of North American Owls, ISBN 0-938027-66-2, and sells for $30.00.  We have it in our physical store at 505.898.8900 and online.  We have a tape which we like entitled Hoots, Toots, Calls, Clicks and Hisses which was published by the Owl Research Insititute in 2002 and available here and at our store.

To listen to recordings of Barn Owls go to and type Barn Owl into the search box and then click on the audio or the video clips and listen to your heart’s content.  Try to describe the call in words and we’ll add your descriptions to the comments section below.

The earlier posts in our owl series are here and here.

The Wisdom of Owls

March 30, 2009
Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

The most often read post on this blog is now “Halloween and Barn Owls.” Sometime ago it passed even “Crows and Ravens Part IV” which is the post where we tell you precisely and clearly how to tell the difference between a Crow and a Raven and even help you identify which kind of crow and raven.  Now we are hard at work on a post telling you how to identify various owls.

In the meantime we thought we would remind you of one of James Thurber’s fables.  Specifically the one about the owl who was God.

Once, according to Thurber, on a dark night, an owl, perched in an oak tree, heard two moles scurrying about on the ground.  The owl said, “Who?” startling the tiny mammals one of whom sqeaked, “Who?”  To which the owl replied, “You two!”  The moles ran off and reported to all the animals in the forest that the owl could see in the dark, answer all questions, and therefore must be the wisest of all animals.

The Secretary bird wasn’t having any and charged off to test the owl.  Arriving at the oak tree the bird demanded that the owl, in pitch darkness, answer the question, “How many fingers am I holding up?”  (Secretary birds, of course, don’t have fingers but Thurber is telling us a fable here, not reporting scientific fact.)  The owl answered — correctly — “Two.”  The secretary bird then asked the owl for another word which means “that is to say” or “namely.”  From the tree came the answer, “to wit.”  So the secretary bird asked its last question, “Why does a lover call on his love?”  “To woo,” answered the owl.

sagittarius serpentarius

sagittarius serpentarius

Secretary birds live in sub-Saharan Africa, spending most of their time on the ground.  They are not small birds; some grow to a height of 4 feet.  Thurber was a writer, not an ornithologist.  We may suspect he chose a Secretary bird for his fable because of its name and for no other reason.

So this secretary bird returned to all the animals, reporting that the owl could see in the dark and knew everything.  There was a doubter in the group as there always is in any group.  The fox wanted to know if the owl could see in daytime too but all the other animals laughed at the fox.  They sent a messenger off to tell the owl they wanted him for their leader.

secretary-birdThe owl appeared among them at noon the next day with huge globular eyes and all the animals thought he was God and started following him everywhere he went.  When he bumped into trees, so did they; when he started walking down the center of a highway, they followed.  Pretty soon a hawk saw a truck bearing down on them and reported to the Secretary bird who said to the owl, “There’s danger ahead!”  The owl calmly asked, “To wit?”  But about that time the truck ran them over.  Except for the fox who had refused to go along. Since this is a kind of a fairy tale, he probably lived happily ever after.

As you can tell, Thurber was using the fable story-telling form – invented, so far as we know, by Aesop – so, in addition to the conflict introduced by the fox, the story has to have a moral.  Here is how Thurber described the moral of this story: You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.

But for us, as birders, the moral might be stated differently: There is a reason you don’t often see owls during the day.


Keven Law took the photo of the yawning secretary bird; Chris Eason took the photo of the entire bird.  You can read more about David Utterback here.

We read Thurber’s owl fable in our copy of Thurber: Writings and Drawings, published by the Library of America. Thurber’s fables were originally published as Fables for Our Time and Further Fables for Our Time. For more about Thurber himself, try this.

George Orwell on Barn Owls (and Pheasants)

December 4, 2008


Although some of his political opinions have not worn well, almost everybody agrees that George Orwell was a fine writer.  What may be less well known is that he was an alert observer of nature.  Reading a newspaper article about the “ignorant” slaughter of Barn Owls and Kestrels, supposedly to protect pheasants, Orwell was moved to write in his own newspaper column of May 5, 1944,

Birds of prey are killed off for the sake of that enemy of England, the pheasant.  Unlike the partridge, the pheasant does not thrive in England, and apart from the neglected woodlands and the vicious game laws that it has been responsible for, all birds and animals that are suspected of eating its eggs or chicks are systematically wiped out.

Orwell was right, wild pheasants don’t do well in England.  But they are raised on farms for hunters.  By 1850 gamekeepers were rearing them for hunting.  Today as many as 30 million a year are released on “shooting estates” and those that are not killed by hunters seldom survive even a year in the wild.  Hunts consist of people who pay for “beaters” and gun dogs to flush the birds which are then shotgunned.
Orwell continued,

Before the war, near my village in Hertfordshire, I used to pass a stretch of fence where the gamekeeper kept his “larder.”  Dangling from the wires were the corpses of stoats, weasels, rats, hedgehogs, jays, owls, kestrels and sparrowhawks.  Except for the rats and perhaps the jays, all of these creatures are beneficial to agriculture.  The stoats keep down the rabbits, the weasels eat mice, and so do the kestrels and sparrowhawks, while the owls eat rats as well.  It has been calculated that a barn owl destroys between 1,000 and 2,000 rats and mice in a year.  Yet it has to be killed off for the sake of this useless bird which Rudyard Kipling correctly described as “lord of many a shire.”
Orwell kept a diary which is now being published as a blog.  The entries are posted 60 years to the day after they were written.  60 years ago Orwell was living near Marrakech, recuperating from pneumonia and the entries mainly concerned the number of eggs his chickens were producing.  But the blog will get more interesting as it approaches the onset of World War II.  Orwell was a perceptive observer of much more than nature.  Here is the blog. Sixty years ago today he only got two eggs.  Of course, it was winter and free range chickens aren’t as productive during the shortened daylight of winter.  We beat him though.  Our girls produced five eggs today.

Halloween and Barn Owls

October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween to all. It is that wonderful pagan holiday where grown-up people can dress up and pretend to be something they are not. It is also the time when witches, owls, and ravens rule the night.

Ravens and owls have bad reputations the rest of the year. Edward Howe Forbush thought that unfair. He was the author of Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, a three volume work first published shortly after Mr. Forbush died in 1929. Here is what he had to say in defense of Barn Owls:

Since the dawn of history, owls have been the pitiable victims of ignorance and superstition. Hated, despised, and feared by many peoples, only their nocturnal habits have enabled them to survive in company with civilized man. In the minds of mankind they have leagued with witches and malignant evil spirits, or even have been believed to personify the Evil One. They have been regarded as precursors of sorrow and death, and some savage tribes have been so fixed in the belief that a man will die if an owl alights on the roof of his dwelling that, it is said, some Indians having seen the owl on the roof-tree have pined away and died. Among these eerie birds, the Barn Owl has been the victim of the greatest share of obloquy and persecution, owing to its sinister appearance, its weird night cries, its habit of haunting dismal swamps and dank quagmires, where an incautious step may precipitate the investigator into malodorous filth or sucking quicksands, and its tendency to frequent the neighborhood of man’s dwellings, especially unoccupied buildings and ghostly ruins. Doubtless the Barn Owl is responsible for some of the stories of haunted houses which have been current through the centuries. When divested by science of its atmosphere of malign mystery, however, this owl is seen to be not only harmless but a benefactor to mankind and a very interesting fowl that will well repay close study.

Indeed. For instance, that weird looking facial ruff appears designed to focus sound waves, magnifying them before delivery to the Barn Owl’s asymmetrical ears. Aware of minute differences in the time the sound waves arrive at each ear, the owl is capable of precisely determining the locus of the sound. A sound coming from above will seem to the owl to be slightly louder in the ear with the higher opening. A sound from the left will seem slightly louder in the ear with the left-most opening. A sound equal in both ears is straight ahead. In experiments, Barn Owls successfully hunt in absolute darkness even though in the wild there is usually at least some night illumination.

And like all owls, they hunt soundlessly. The leading edges of the first primary wing feathers are serrated which disrupts the flow of air over the wings which silences the vortex noise created by air flowing over a smooth surface.

But it is Halloween, so – if you want – you can be afraid of Barn Owls; but for tonight only.


For More on Barn Owls, see “Toe Dusting.”

Want to know how to identify Barn Owls?  Here is how if you can see the bird; here is how if it is dark and you can only hear it.

Here is a piece on the Wisdom of Owls.

For more on the delightful E.H. Forbush, see our post about Belted Kingfishers.


UPDATE – APRIL 3, 2010

Follow this link to a live web cam of a Barn Owl tending to brand new babies.

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