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Mysterious, night-dwelling owls may just be the coolest birds around

Photo courtesy of Monika Bobek

Why, of all the bird species in the world, are so many of us fascinated with owls? 

Bob Bryerton, a program coordinator for the Forest Preserve District, has a few theories about why owls are so cool. 

“The adaptations that help them hunt, eyes facing forward and a dish-shaped face to help guide sound to their ears, give them a somewhat human appearance,” he said. “And you often see them depicted with glasses on and a mortarboard hat. This helps reinforce the belief that owls are wise or smart.”

Also, they seem more mysterious because most of the owls around us are nocturnal, Bryerton explained. 

“Since they only come out at night, we don’t often see them,” he said. “When we do, it seems very special and it is exciting. They are, after all, relatively large birds that have appealing colors to go along with that forward-facing gaze. The feeling of specialness and getting to see an owl is one of the things that makes them so cool.”

Even the way they hunt makes them special. 

“They have large wings for their body size that provide a lot of lift for them to fly,” Bryerton said. “This allows them to carry prey off to eat them. But it also gives them a floating like appearance when they fly. They don’t seem to have to work hard to get aloft and don’t necessarily flap a lot. That combined with the adaptations of their feathers for silent flight gives them this ghostly appearance when they fly by you. They seem like they are floating silently.”

While they may be hard to spot, they are easier to hear, especially the great horned owl's call. 

“This is probably the one everyone knows the best and is used in movies and television shows whenever they need an owl sound,” Bryerton said. “The call is short and deep, ‘hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo.’  When you hear this, you instantly think of the woods on a dark night with the moon shining through leafless trees. It seems to be part of our subconscious.”

Other owls also have great calls, he said.

“The barred owl hoots a, “who-cooks-for-you-who-cooks-for-youuuaaall,” which is also instantly recognizable. “The Eastern screech owl has a soft whistling call that sounds like a horse whinny. The barn owl has a call that sounds like someone screaming and can be very unnerving to hear on a dark night. These and other owl vocalizations are another reason why they are so darn cool and why we are so interested in them.”

 

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While owls may be hard to spot, they’re everywhere and are probably living in most neighborhoods, Bryerton said. 

“Owls are skilled hunters and some species have adapted well to humans,” he said. “Great horned owls are found across the entire country and can live in the cities and suburbs as well as wild areas. They just need a few trees and a source of prey and they can make a home. 

“Cemeteries, golf courses, city and suburban parks, and railroad, highway and power line rights of way can all provide habitat for owls,” Bryerton said. “In some cases, the great horned owl has been so good at adapting and taking over habitats they have forced other owls to the fringes. 

"Great horned owls will prey on smaller owls like the screech owl. Because of that, screech owls try and find homes in areas where the great horned owls are not around, leading them to nest in backyards or man-made boxes in towns or small patches of woods closer to people. This means that almost everywhere you live, owls are likely nearby, even if you don’t know it.”

Finally, owls are unique because they are exceptional predators designed to hunt in low-light conditions. 

“They have excellent eyesight and, in fact, their eyes occupy so much space in the sockets on the skull, there are no muscles to move the eyes,” Bryerton said. “To compensate, they have extra vertebrae in their necks which allows it to be much more flexible so they can move their heads around to focus on their prey. Because of this, they can turn their heads 270 degrees. This allows them to look well over one shoulder and then turn quickly to look over the opposite shoulder. In doing so, it can look like they can turn their heads completely around. How cool is that!”

So, it’s clear why owls are among the most intriguing of all birds, Bryerton said. 

“In short, all of the adaptations that allow them to hunt at night, call to each other, find prey in a variety of conditions and find homes everywhere are what make them so darned COOL to us.”

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