Buffer Preserve gives a hoot about birds of prey

Back in December we had a request to identify a picture of baby owls. After consulting research books, and using google, we thought for sure they were baby great horned owls. To confirm, a former board president who had worked closely with eagles, owls and other feathered animals was emailed. Lynda White confirmed the picture showed baby great horned owls.

It was a little difficult to identify from books and the internet because many times the young look different from its adult version. As mentioned in last week’s article, the young bald eagle has a brown head which only turns white when it reaches adulthood which takes four or five years.

A recent visitor to the tower had a pleasant surprise as an owl flew to nearby limb and just “hung out.” He was able to take a picture with his cellphone. By the time he retrieved his camera the owl had flown away. This occurred at dusk and he was surprised to see the owl thinking one would mostly see owls at night.

Read on for very interesting facts about these fascinating birds of prey.

It’s widely known owls are mostly nocturnal; however, they can be active in daylight hours also. Interestingly, you can tell when they eat by the color of their eyes. If their eyes are dark brown or black, they hunt and eat strictly nocturnally. Orange-eyed or red eyed hunt in the twilight hours and yellow eyes hunt and eat in the daytime.

Owls have brilliant eyesight for hunting their prey. However, they lack a sense of smell. Researchers observe owls who have the smell of skunk on them, and their nests and pellets smell like skunk also.

There are over 200 species of owls in the world; only two types which are either the Typical Owl or the Barn Owl family. How do you tell them apart? Typical Owls have the famous round clock face which is created by their pattern of feathers. Barn owls have the heart shaped design of face feathers. Typical owls are the most prevalent with 220 known species. The Barn Own family has only 18 species. 

Owls do not have round eyeballs like humans. Instead, their eyes are long and shaped like a tube. Owls are not able to move their eyes to see at all. Since they can’t move their eyes, they move their head 270 degrees and almost upside down (without moving the rest of their body) in order to see in all directions. Their eyes are not useless as they have excellent depth perception. Therefore, they can see their prey from much greater distances. If you look in an owls ears, you can see the bottom of their tubular eye. No – to cotton swabs for owls!

Both males and females may hoot. Males have a lower pitch than females. Males give territorial calls that can be heard a few miles away at night. There’s no other owl that does hooting better than the great horned owl. 

Owls are welcomed on farms and homesteads because they eat thousands of insects, lizards, small rodents, birds, even crayfish. Owls have a varied diet, eat a variety of prey and are significant rodent predators. Owls are natural pest control for farmers. They can eat up to 1000 mice per year and keep pests and vermin under control. This idea is gaining in popularity because farmers are able to use less poison. This is a good solution for the earth.

Being successful hunters in the night, owls have made truly amazing physiological adaptations, such as rotating their head 270 degrees, having ears that are offset on the sides of their head to pinpoint their prey, having the ability to control feathers on their face to direct sounds to their ears, having comb like structures on their feathers to silence them in flight.

The Owl Page on the Cornell University Cornell Lab of Ornithology has lots of super information on owls and audios of hoots from different owls. Check them out.

The baby owls in the photo, which are great horned owls, have an orangey face with black and white lines resembling a tiger. While they are trying not to be seen, they have horizonal bars on their underside which make them look like tree branches. Looking from above they look almost like they have leaves on them.

Great horned owls are quite large and look fierce! If you see one and want to identify it, looks for long tufts of feathers that resemble ears on their head and those intimidating eyes. They are common in Florida and can be seen anywhere in North America from the Arctic south to the tropics.

Great horned owls can live anywhere as long as there are trees and rocky nesting sites nearby. Their habitat is unlimited. In fact, it’s hard to find a bird more habitat-adaptable than the great horned owl.  

They will eat larger animals to sustain their bigger bodies. They might eat rabbits, geese, groundhogs, birds, rats or even other raptors. They eat small prey too such as frogs, insects, invertebrates, reptiles, mice and scorpions. The owls diet is unique to the habitat in which they live.

Whooo… helped make owls famous in recent years? Harry Potter, who spotlighted many unique owl species that exist on planet Earth.

Who preys on owls? Crows or ravens which are corrids. They see owls as predators and chase them away. Sometimes they manage to kill the owl if there is a large and superior number of them together.

Fun to know fact: Owls’ ears do not match in size. Since they are not the same size, their prey makes noise and the owl receives the sound at two different times due to asymmetrical ears. Their brains calculate the exact location of the prey even if they can’t see the prey.

Owls are silent when flying. They are known as ambush hunters. Their bird cousins, eagles and falcons, rely on extreme speed. Owls fly low, slow and silent.  They have perfected the art of sneaking up on their prey.

Seems like owls have it pretty good in the wild. One problem they do have is rain. They can’t fly in rain for a very long time. They do not have the natural waterproofing that others have. If they get too wet, they have to wait to dry off some before flying again.

Not all owls Hoot! Some might chirp, whistle, scream, screech, bawl, growl or shriek. You can find examples of the noises they make online and hear for yourself what they sound like.

Owls have been around for a very long time and are even mentioned in the Bible. The oldest fossils are dated 50 million to 60 million years ago! The oldest on record was found in Colorado from around 61 million years ago.

There are six species found in northwest Florida – the barn, barred, burrowing, Eastern screech, great horned, and the short-eared owl. On very rare occasions you might see the flammulated, long-eared, Northern saw whet or a snowy owl.

Try looking for an owl during the day, at twilight or at night. They are fascinating to look at and enjoy.

This article originally appeared on The Star: Buffer Preserve gives a hoot about birds of prey

Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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