In addition to bats, snakes, spiders and other creepy crawly things, Halloween brings a seasonal focus on another misunderstood and underappreciated creature – the owl. Owls have been on Earth for about 60 million years, and almost as soon as humans arrived on the scene, they began concocting myths based on these unique birds. And with owls, you can understand how some of those scary stories got started.
Owls typically have large eyes and most hunt at night when ghosts and goblins roam the land. Some have loud – and scary – vocalizations, and they can turn their heads nearly all the way around. Some owls can fly almost silently, while tufts of feathers on some owl heads can look a little like horns, as in the horns of a devil. It’s not surprising that some ancient peoples came to fear owls, which are found in every continent on Earth except Antarctica.
On the other hand, many cultures view owls with a great deal of respect and awe. The large owl eyes can impart a sense of wisdom as well as fright, and in some cultures, owls are considered symbols of good luck. Owls have been prominently featured in artworks for thousands of years, with paintings and mummified owl remains found in many ancient Egyptian tombs.
The real importance of owls, however, is their value as hunters of pesky little creatures like mice, voles, moles, rats, hares and insects. These efficient birds of prey with their hooked beaks and powerful talons, are vital to keeping the populations of rodents under control on farms and in woodlands.
That said, it becomes ever more essential to preserve disappearing owl habitats around the world, especially in urban, industrial, and agricultural areas where development has degraded the habitat of most species of owls and other native species, causing large reductions in their populations and even their disappearance from some areas.
It’s necessary for our economic health to save owls, but it’s also a cause that stands on its own merit. Owls are just plain fascinating. There are over 200 species of owls worldwide, divided into two groups – the larger typical owl group and the smaller barn owl group. There are minor structural differences between the two types, but the most obvious way to tell them apart is the shape of their faces. Typical owls are large round faces, while barn owls have heart-shaped faces. The faces of both types of owls have the distinctive disks on the sides – concave shapes that trap and focus sound – one of the advantages that owls use to hear their small prey animals rustling in the grass and leaves.
Unlike most birds of prey, which have eyes on the sides of the head, owl eyes face forward, allowing for stereoscopic vision – another advantage for hunting since they can see better in low light. The eyes, however, do not move in their sockets, so the owls move their whole heads from side to side to see, a behavior that led humans to mistakenly think that owls can turn their heads completely around.
Most owls do hunt at night, but some are active at dawn and in twilight, and a few are daytime hunters. Owls vary tremendously in size, from the tiny elf owl that’s the size of a sparrow to the heaviest (and largest winged) owls, the Eurasian Eagle-Owl and Blakiston's Fish Owl. These two species can both reach a wingspan of over six feet and a weight of ten pounds in the largest females. Owls can live in almost any type of habitat, including the Arctic, home to the seasonally white snowy owl.
The life span of an owl depends on the species, with some living longer than others.
Some, like the great horned owl and snowy owl, are long-lived. Owls do not build nests, preferring natural cavities in trees or cliffs and sometimes buildings.
Some nest on the ground, while the burrowing owl adopts the underground homes abandoned by burrowing mammals.
Owl parents share the work, with the female doing most of the incubating and brooding and males doing most of the hunting. Owls are generally monogamous with pair bonds that could last through the breeding season or the year; the tawny owl mates for life.
There are many more really interesting aspects to the lives of these birds, but here’s just one more fun fact. Most perching birds have four toes on their feet and place them three in front and one in back; owls place two in the front and two in the back.
All owls are listed in Appendix II of the international CITES treaty
(the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Although owls have long been hunted, there is evidence that the poaching of owls is increasing. Combined with the threats to their habitats, these dangers mean that owl conservation is becoming more critical.
Here are just a few links to information on the effort to save owls:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
for more information about owl conservation organizations around the world.