A great horned owl and a chick rest in a nest constructed in the fork of a tree. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

By Bryan Stevens

As I sit at my computer working on this week’s column, I can hear the low, sonorous call of a great horned owl from the woods located behind my house. The great horned owl is one of two species I often hear near my home. In addition, I regularly hear the much smaller Eastern screech-owl calling from the same woods. The intervals around dusk and dawn are popular times for owls to produce their eerie calls. At present, there’s a pair of great horned owls living in the woods near my home. If I hear one, I usually hear the other. These large owls call to each other to communicate their whereabouts. Perhaps it helps them avoid surprise encounters with each other once they begin hunting after the sun sets.

The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. These large owls thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable predatory birds have also learned to survive in the suburbs and even city parks. While quite at home in the region, the great horned owl is not confined to the Southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest. If nothing else, the great horned owl has shown amazing resilience and adaptability.

With about 200 different species, the world’s owls form an order known as Strigiformes. Characteristics that define owls include a mostly solitary and nocturnal existence. These predatory birds are also typified by such physical traits as an upright stance, binocular vision, exceptional hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight.

The smallest owl — weighing as little as an ounce and measuring a mere five inches) — is the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi). To give you some perspective, that DVD of your favorite movie also weighs about an ounce. The common house sparrow that flocks in shopping center parking lots is slightly bigger than this tiny owl. According to the website, The Owl Page, the elf owl was originally known as Whitney’s Owl. The scientific name whitneyi is a Latinized word formed from the last name of Josiah Dwight Whitney, a prominent American geologist for whom the diminutive owl was named. Whitney was considered the foremost authority of his day on the economic geology of the United States. In addition to having a tiny owl named in his honor, Whitney’s name graces Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, and the Whitney Glacier, which was the first confirmed glacier in the United States.

The miniature elf owl is every bit the predator, but its prey generally consists of various insects as well as such desert dwellers as scorpions and spiders. Despite the extremes of the environment in which it lives, the elf owl does just fine. It prefers areas offering plenty of saguaro cactus. Cavities in these iconic desert plants provide roosting and nesting locations for this tiny owl. The elf owl range from the southwest regions of the United States to Central Mexico and Baja California. Unfortunately, the numbers of this owl in Texas and California have declined in recent times.

To find the world’s largest owl, head to the other side of the world to the islands of Japan, as well as remote areas of Siberia, Manchuria and Korea. With a body comparable in size to that of a young child and a wingspan wider than six feet, the Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) earns its distinction as the largest owl in the world.  The fish owls are part of a larger grouping of birds known as eagle owls, which specialize in hunting in habitats found along large rivers. Female Blakiston’s fish owls are larger than males, and a large female can weigh as much as 10 pounds and attain a 6.5-foot wingspan. This big owl was named after English naturalist Thomas Blakiston (1832-1891) who found the first specimen on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in 1883. According to Paul Frost of The Raptor Foundation, this owl is sacred to the Ainu, a native people residing on Hokkaidu. The Ainu refer to this owl as “kotan kor kamuy,” which means “god of the village” or “god who defends the village”.

While many cultures view owls with misgivings, often associating their nocturnal tendencies with more sinister motives, that’s not always the case. For instance, the Japanese people believe that owls bring good fortune. In addition, owls offer protection from suffering. Other cultures have feared and reviled owls. The ancient Romans share much of the blame for the negative image owls are still overcoming. Romans considered owls as harbingers of death, defeat and other disasters. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, Romans advised that the offending owl should be killed and nailed to a door. Such a bloodthirsty solution leads me to think that owls had more to fear from Romans than Romans had to fear from them.

The need for common names for the 200 species of owls has resulted in some creative monikers. Some of the most descriptive common names for some of the world’s owls include ashy-faced barn owl, barking owl, brown owl, cuckoo owlet, fearful owl, giant eagle owl, Christmas Island hawk owl, snowy owl, laughing owl, rufous owl, tawny-bellied screech owl, winking owl, and spotted wood owl.

Many relatives of the great horned owl have proven equally adaptive, carving out niches for themselves in habitats as diverse as jungles, deserts and the frozen tundra. Indeed, the great horned owl has many relatives living in our region. The Eastern screech owl is a tiny cousin, but some other large owls that live in the area include the barred owl and the barn owl. More rare to the region are visits by such owls as the short-eared owl and the long-eared owl.

There’s even another tiny relative — the Northern saw whet owl — that is rarely heard and even more seldom seen.

Regardless of the species, the activities of owls are invariably cloaked in darkness. Despite electric lights and other trappings of civilization, people still delight in the shivers that result from hearing the hoots of an owl. It’s truly no surprise that owls have become popular motifs for the celebration of the Halloween holiday we celebrated a couple of weeks ago. Owls may live alongside us, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which consists of all the spooky things that go bump in the night.

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If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.