Finding the Illusive Owl

picture of HackBack newsletterBy Kathy Pfeiffer

While driving through open country one night, you see a flash of large wings in the headlights. What was THAT, you ask. It was most likely an owl swooping through the night air looking for prey. Although rare in the Cincinnati area, (more common east of here) you’d never forget the sight of a Barn Owl, if one should cross your path. Ghostly pale and strictly nocturnal, they are often known as Demon Owls or Hissing Owls because of the way they fly out of the darkness making eerie calls that sound like a long harsh scream.

If a mysterious high-pitched whinny catches your attention in the night, it is likely coming from a Screech Owl, another owl whose call sounds nothing like the hoot one would expect from an owl. With their camouflage markings and small size, they can blend in so completely with a tree’s bark that you don’t see them at all until one magically starts to emerge from the middle of a tree.

The Great Horned Owl, with its ear-like tufts, large yellow eyes, and deep hooting voice, embodies the image of the quintessential owl of storybooks, but that doesn’t make them any easier to find. Your best bet at seeing one is at dusk sitting on fence posts or tree limbs at the edges of open areas, or flying across roads or fields with their large wings slowly flapping. Their deep, soft hoots make a stuttering rhythm, and sound like, “hoo-h-HOO-hoo-hoo,” not the long hoots described in storybooks. In fact, people often incorrectly identify the call of a Mourning Dove as the hoot of an owl because of their long soft sound.

Don’t expect a traditional hoot to be coming from a Barred Owl either, as their distinctive call sounds like a barking of, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” They can be seen flying noiselessly through dense woods, snoozing on tree limbs, living mainly in forests near water.

So if owls are so hard to find, how do you know if one is nearby? One big clue is the sight of an excited group of songbirds swooping and squawking. This is called mobbing, and small birds will do this around owls, hawks, or other birds of prey to alert small birds of the predator’s presence, and teach young members of their flock about the danger.

Another sign of the presence of an owl is the discovery of a pile of pellets on the ground. Owls regurgitate the bones, fur, and feathers of their prey in grey or brown fuzzy oval pellets, usually once or twice a day. Areas near a tree cavity, barn, or abandoned building where an owl may be roosting can be littered with pellets, and are a good sign that the bird is living there.

The illusive owl captures our imagination as he startles us at night, swooping into our path, watching us from dark corners in old buildings, and magically revealing himself from the center of a tree. It’s no wonder we are spellbound by the sight of one, as we look into those marvelous eyes, and are assured that Mother Nature is there, strong and steadfast, watching over us.