Mysterious, spooky, wise, lovable. Depending on who you ask, owls have quite the reputation. With four species found in our area – Eastern Screech, Great Horned, Barred and Barn – it’s likely there are a few living in the woods near you.
- Owls can turn their neck up to 135 degrees in either direction – 270 degrees of rotation! 14 neck bones – 7 more than humans – allow owls to swivel back and forth effortlessly.
- Owls make virtually no noise when they fly. Their wing feathers have comb-like serrations that break turbulence into smaller currents and reduce sound.
- Not all owls hoot. Barn Owls make hissing sounds, Eastern Screech Owls whinny like a horse and Saw-Whet Owls are named after the sound they make which is similar to the sound of a whetstone sharpening a saw. To hear the various sounds and calls from owls across North America, check out the Audubon Owls Guide for your phone and I.D. owls on the go.
Owls come in all sizes. The largest owl in North America is the Great Gray Owl which can grow as tall as 32“. The smallest is the Elf Owl – 5-6” tall and about a mere 1 ½ ounces in weight.
Here in East Texas, if you’re lucky you might see one of the largest owls in North America – the Great Horned Owl. At almost 2’ tall, the Great Horned Owl is adaptable to many habitats, including city neighborhoods, forested areas, coastal areas, deserts and mountains. Listen for the deep, low hoo, hoohoo, hoo that sounds like a deeper a dove’s call.
What do they eat?
Great at pest control, a single adult owl can eat up to 50 pounds of gophers, mice, rats and moles in one year. A barn owl family will eat up to 3,000 rodents in one growing season, but they aren’t the only thing on the menu. Owls eat insects, earthworms, fish, crawfish, amphibians, other birds and small mammals too.
With large eyes and super-sensitive hearing, owls can find the smallest vole, even in total darkness. They use their talons to rip prey into smaller pieces, for better digestion, because they swallow the pieces whole. Bones and fur compact into a pellet which the owl later coughs up.
Why do we need them?
Owls play a critical role in nature’s complex food web by helping manage overpopulation. It’s easy to see why farmers like having owls around. Many will install owl nesting boxes to help with pest control, and it’s cheaper and safer than poison.
Unfortunately, owls, like many birds, are declining in population due to loss of habitat and increased use of chemicals. Good news is that there are ways that you can help.
- Use traps instead of poison when controlling rodent populations
- Leave dead trees as a nesting or roosting option, as long as it’s not a safety hazard for those nearby. Or consider installing a nesting box for small owls, like the Eastern Screech Owl.
- Reduce or minimize outdoor lighting at night, when owls are hunting.
- Drive slow and stay alert for flying owls and roadside birds at night.
Test your Birdwatching IQ with the 13 species you can see in Texas.
Interested in learning more about local wildlife? Check out these past articles: