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Hilton Jr., B. 1991. Mythical, mystical owls. South Carolina Wildlife 38(6):32-39.
(Note: The draft below was submitted to South Carolina Wildlife magazine; the article that actually appeared in print may have been edited.)
Nestling Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Ask two ornithologists which bird is most intelligent and you're likely to get an argument. Some bird specialists claim corvids--including jays and crows--are the smartest, while other authorities say parrots are most clever. If you want to settle to the problem quickly, ask any six-year-old and you'll learn that no bird is wiser than the owl.
The Owl. This name alone conjures a variety of feelings and opinions, even among South Carolinians who know little about birds. Folks who can't tell a sparrow from a chickadee can recognize owls, and most people recall something interesting about owl natural history. Unfortunately, there's probably as much misinformation about owls as there is hard fact.
Ornithologists agree that owls--intelligent or not--are among the most poorly studied birds, in part because they are nocturnal and humans are day creatures. Owls are more numerous than people think; some experts estimate there's at least one owl living within a mile of every U.S. resident. However, since most owl sightings are chance views of midnight birds gliding past headlights on lonesome country roads, only avid owl watchers and chronic insomniacs can expect to spot more than a few species.
Even if owls weren't so elusive and mysterious, they'd still be fascinating to study, and the truth about them is almost as unbelievable as the myth. Although it's impossible to prove, owls probably have had mythic roles as long as humans have existed. Imagine Cro-Magnon families huddled fearfully around a campfire, listening in the darkness to a distant chorus of owl hoots. Or think what must have gone through Neanderthal minds when a rabbit struck by owl talons shrieked to shatter the nighttime silence. Such fearful moments are the stuff of modern day horror films, so it's reasonable that primitive humans associated owls with evil, pain, and death.
According to Paul Johnsgard (North American Owls: Biology and Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Press), Mesopotamian tablets from 2,300 B.C. depict the goddess Lilith as "winged, bird-footed, and typically accompanied by owls," a significant association because Lilith was Sumeria's goddess of death. Pallas Athene--Greek goddess of fertility and power--was also affiliated with the owl, possibly "because of the nocturnal (and especially the lunar) . . . associations between female fertility goddesses and the cycles of the moon."
In Rome, owls were respected for prophetic abilities. Johnsgard reports Pliny's description of fear and confusion when an owl entered the Forum, Virgil wrote of an owl that foretold Dido's suicide, and Horace associated owls with witchcraft. Until recent times, "nailing up of a dead owl or its wings has been widely believed in Europe to help ward off such dangers as pestilence, lightning, and hail."
Native American tribes also have stories about owls--many of which are so similar to Oriental myth that they support the theory of an Asian origin for Amerindian peoples. Oral traditions in most American tribes associate owls with death soon-to-come, and an owl is typically the bearer of the deceased's soul as it passes from this world to the next. In the Carolinas, Cherokee women bathed their children's eyes in water containing owl feathers, believing it would help them stay awake. Johnsgard provides this Cherokee tale that explains why owls are nocturnal:
SOUTH CAROLINA'S OWLS
Only four owl species breed in South Carolina, but five others show up in migration or during occasional winter visits. The most widespread year-round residents are Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl, with Common Barn-Owls breeding less frequently in the state. Short-eared Owls occur most winters in South Carolina, but the remaining species--Snowy Owl, Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owl--are quite rare.
Great Horned Owl
OTHER SOUTH CAROLINA OWLS
Five non-breeding owl species have been seen in South Carolina. Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) are uncommon winter visitors to our coastal marshes and have become very rare in the Piedmont with the loss of inland marshes and old fields. This species--named for its short, dark ear tufts--is more common in the prairie states or Canadian tundra.
The crow-sized Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) is a rarely-reported winter visitor across the state, but because it is usually silent and inhabits dense evergreen woods, it may occur more frequently than is believed. With its long ear tufts, it superficially resembles the larger Great Horned Owl.
Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) have been sighted only four times in South Carolina, always in winter from the coast. One was photographed at Huntington Beach, where it may have been reminded of its regular habitats--rolling prairies of the West or dunes on Florida's Gulf Coast.
The Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca), the largest North American owl species with its six-foot wingspan, is our only all-white owl. Common year-round in northern Canada and on Great Lakes ice floes in winter, this bird very rarely wanders into the Palmetto State. There are only 17 records, seven from the Piedmont and ten from the coastal plain. Snowy Owls seem to show up when there is a crash in tundra populations of lemmings, voles, and other prey.
The tiniest owl in South Carolina--the Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)--is also a rare winter visitor, although its call has been reported in late spring from I'On Swamp near Charleston. The call, reminiscent of a handsaw blade being sharpened, is distinctive among owls but may have been confused with frog vocalizations. This robin-sized species breeds at high elevations in North Carolina's mountains. (NOTE: In 1999, seven Northern Saw-whet Owls were captured and banded at Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History. See Owl Research.)
OWL BREEDING BIOLOGY
Owls are probably the first birds to breed each year in South Carolina. Great Horned Owls are often on eggs by early January, and there is evidence that Barn-Owls will start laying during any month of the year. Owl courtship typically begins in autumn when a newly-mated pair begins to mark off a territory and protect it by hooting. Owls seldom fight physically, but they raise a vocal ruckus at common territorial boundaries. A Barred Owl pair will defend up to 640 acres--a square mile of territory--needed to produce enough prey for two adults and their nestlings.
Surprisingly, many owls are cavity nesters. Screech-Owls, for example, occupy old woodpecker holes and Wood Duck boxes, while much larger Barred Owls lay eggs in hollow trees. (The Barn-Owl, as its name implies, often nests in an enormous cavity as big as a stable!) Some owls recycle abandoned nests of hawks or crows, and there's even a record of nest sharing by a Red-shouldered Hawk that sat on a mixed clutch of eggs at night while a Barred Owl incubated the same nest by day.
Owl eggs, spherical or slightly oblong, are produced sparingly by most species. Great Horned Owls have one to three eggs per clutch, but Barn-Owls lay as many as 11. Unlike songbirds, which complete a clutch before incubating, owls begin setting shortly after the first egg. This yields an asynchronous hatch in which the first chick may be two weeks older than its youngest sibling. Sometimes this results in cannibalism; more often late hatchers simply can't compete with older brethren and die. The male owl usually feeds the female while she incubates, but it takes both adults to keep up with the voracious appetites of their nestlings.
FEEDING HABITS OF OWLS
As carnivores, Carolina owls dine solely on animals-from grasshoppers to cotton rats to songbirds. Great Horned Owls appear to have a special preference for skunks and are also known to take housecats that should have been kept in at night--or by day, for that matter. Barn-Owls eat large moths, frogs, snakes, lizards, and crayfish, but a mated pair may require as many as 40 rats or mice each night to feed a growing family. Since Barn-Owl chicks are tended to for up to three months after hatching, a pair and its offspring will require up to 3,600 mice and rats for just one brood! Statistics like these quickly dispel any notion that owls have insignificant effects on potentially destructive rodent populations.
Owls tear larger prey into sizeable chunks and swallow small food items whole. Food goes to the crop and then the gizzard, where digestion begins on usable parts. Hair, feathers, and bone compact into dry clumps expelled by the owl as "pellets" that litter the ground beneath a nest or roost and become wonderful story-telling tools. Nothing illustrates the food chain concept better than dissecting an owl pellet to deduce from skull fragments just how efficient a predator the owl really is.
SPECIAL OWL ADAPTATIONS
An owl's success at capturing prey is enhanced by all sorts of amazing adaptations. Owls have very large eyes, exceptionally acute vision, and the ability to see well in low-light situations. They cannot see in total darkness, however, so owls rely exclusively on their ears to locate prey on moonless nights. The ear openings of an owl are of slightly different sizes, and they are situated asymmetrically; this causes sound to reach each eardrum at different times, providing binaural hearing that is enhanced by the owl's ability to rotate its head right or left for 270 degrees. These auditory adaptations allow a Barn-Owl to find its prey in complete darkness with a deviation of less than one degree in vertical and horizontal planes.
The wings of most birds make rustling or whistling sounds, but because of comb-like feather edgings, owls can glide in silence. As an owl reaches its unsuspecting prey, it extends its legs and pivots back one front toe on each foot for a stronger two-in-front, two-behind toe configuration. On impact, hind talons pierce the prey and front claws swing into a powerful fistlike grip that seldom loosens from a squirming rabbit, rat, or squirrel.
THE FUTURE OF OWLS
Compared to day-active hawks, South Carolina's nocturnal owls are seldom shot by accident or out of malice. Still, their numbers have declined steadily over the past century, mostly because of habitat loss and widespread pesticide use. Trucks and cars also take heavy tolls as owls forage along highway shoulders, hunting for rats that are attracted to food waste in roadside litter.
For owls to survive in the Palmetto State it is essential that we realize how our actions impact on wildlife populations. Owls need mature forests and undrained swamps in which to breed and old fields in which they can hunt. Dead-standing trees or snags are required not only by nesting owls but also by woodpeckers, Wood Ducks, bluebirds, bats, and flying squirrels. Some owls nest in artificial boxes, but for the most part we are far more effective in attracting owls when we set aside sizeable tracts of natural habitat. And, as with other animals that rank high on the food chain, pesticides from prey accumulate in and kill predatory owls, so it is critical that we learn to farm without so many toxic chemicals.
All owls are protected by strict state and federal laws. These marvelous creatures are worth protecting merely because they are so fascinating to study and observe, but they also play a vital role in the balance of nature. Owls, regardless of whether they are the smartest birds, are perfectly adapted for a predatory role, and it's our responsibility to help these mythical, mystical creatures play out their role each night in South Carolina's wild places.
Bill Hilton Jr. is a science education consultant, writer, naturalist, and Macintosh computer enthusiast who lives in York, South Carolina.
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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this website--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.