Volume 12, Issue 44 ~ October 28- November 3, 2004
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Bay Life

Whoos in the Woods
Heard any owls lately?
by Vivian I. Zumstein

A full moon casts a huge, dark shadow from a tree, punctuating the open landscape, its twisted trunk spreads its canopy over the road.

Out of nowhere, a white shape crossed the headlights, swooping in front of us. My father slammed on the brakes, raising a protective arm to prevent me from going through the windshield of his 1960 Chevy Biscayne.

In the glare of the the bright headlights, a confused owl glared at us. It was a barn owl, its white heart-shaped face feathers framing dark brown eyes and a sharp beak. Brown and gray-mottled wings flanked a flecked white body. My father and I held our breaths, staring at the bird as it stared back, unblinking. Then the spell was broken. With a quick flap of its powerful wings, the owl disappeared into the darkness.

Little did I know how rare an experience that was. Four decades later, I have only seen two other owls in the wild.

Whoo’s Here
Rarest of the many owls that live around Chesapeake Bay is the owl I saw first — but never again in the wild.

The barn owl is native to many parts of the world, including Chesapeake Bay, but nowadays only about a dozen pairs nest in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties.

“Officially, the barn owl is listed as a bird of critical concern in Maryland, which means it’s not quite endangered,” says Andy Brown, a senior naturalist at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary in Prince Frederick. “But I would say in Calvert and Anne Arundel the bird is already endangered. I only know of one or two pairs in Calvert County.”

Brown blames the decline on changes in agricultural practices over the past century and the owl’s selective diet. “Studies indicate that as much as 90 percent of the barn owl’s diet is meadow voles,” says Brown. “Many small family farms have been replaced by commercial farming concerns, which reduced the number of fallow fields, field verges and pasture land. Voles need open grassland. And barn owls need meadow voles.”

With the demise of tobacco, Brown hopes barn owls may benefit. “Tobacco farmers are being forced to diversify,” explains Brown. “Some have changed to raising organic cattle on open pasture land or planting fruit orchards. Both are better habitats for small rodents, and that could help the barn owl.”

As well as the barn owl, seven more species have been sighted in our area: great horned, barred, Eastern screech, Northern saw-whet, long-eared, short-eared and snowy.

Long-eared and short-eared owls nest in coniferous forests to our north, only drifting as far south as Maryland on rare occasion, usually during winter. Snowy owls live in the Arctic. They too are infrequent and accidental visitors to our region.

The Northern saw-whet is native to Maryland but only migrates through in spring and fall. It is a very small owl, about as big as an adult’s clenched fist. We know they are here, but sightings are extremely rare.

Not so rare, however, for Mike Quinlan, a researcher at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Lothian. Every fall since 1995, Quinlan has been leading volunteers to catch migrating saw-whet owls.

As well as small, completely nocturnal and a dense-forest dweller, the saw-whet is very quiet. Unlike its more boisterous owl cousins, this bird calls infrequently. What it does is investigate the calls of other saw-whets. Quinlan capitalizes on the bird’s curiosity to lure them with tape-recorded calls.

In 1999, the team netted 45 birds, including eight in just one night, catching them in a stretched veil-thin “mist net.”

“It is amazing to think that we had at least 45 of these birds moving through our small sanctuary in just one season,” says Jug Bay’s director Chris Swarth.

The northern saw-whet owl, top, migrates through our area spring and fall.

The multi-pitched hoots of the great horned owl, above, earn it the nickname hoot owl.
Halloween Actors
Among the three most common owls in Bay Country, two — the great horned and Eastern screech — make great Halloween actors. Barred owls, too, can raise a ruckus.

The great horned is the largest of all regional owls, with a length of 25 inches and a wingspan of almost five feet. It’s also Halloween’s familiar. What elementary school classroom is complete at Halloween without the silhouette of a great horned owl against the backdrop of a full, yellow moon?

It’s no surprise this owl is so familiar. It has adapted to all kinds of habitats: forests, swamps, deserts, grasslands and even city parks. Its wide range extends from Arctic Alaska and Canada to the Straits of Magellan in South America.

The horns of the great horned owl really aren’t horns; they’re tufts of specialized feathers standing up from the owl’s head. These tufts have nothing to do with hearing, but they have a great deal to do with camouflage. Raised tufts resemble twigs or branches, helping the owl blend into surrounding trees.

The great horned owl lives throughout the Chesapeake. It resides in forests near open, agricultural areas, but can show up in more urban areas as well. The owl is as relaxed about its diet as its neighborhood. Unlike the finicky barn owl, the great horned owl eats almost anything it can sink its talons into. Brown calls it the “tiger of the sky.” Great horned owls have even been known to catch skunks.

Winning Halloween credits in other ways is the Eastern screech owl.

Don’t get close to its nest or you’ll find out how, as these tiny owls, only 10 inches tall, are such vigorous home-defenders that they will even strike people who apporach. It’s a scary thought, but unlikely to happen near Halloween; the bird nests in the spring.

This tree-dweller frequents suburban areas. Many live in backyards and cemeteries, even in cities like Annapolis, where it makes a positive addition to any neighborhood with its appetite for flying insects and small rodents, including city-dwelling rats and birdfeeder-robbing gray squirrels.

The Noisiest Owl
Chesapeake Bay also hosts barred owls, whose spooky noises in the woods can give you a good scare.

A relatively large bird at 20 inches, the barred owl is rarely seen. But it’s heard often in these parts.

An autumn evening’s full moon inspired mental images of threatening creatures lurking in those woods as my 15-year-old son helped carry out the trash. Then from the woods we heard the eerie sounds.

They started with three short hoots followed by a much longer, drawn-out note ending in a trill. Then they digressed into a cacophony suited to a rain forest filled with raucous monkeys.

At first my son was unsettled. But when I called out hoots, an owl answered.

“Cool!” my son said.

I was flattered. At this stage of his life, I do very little that impresses him. I was further surprised when he asked, “Can I try?”
He imitated my call, and he too was answered.


photo courtesy of DNR
Though as large as 20 inches, the barred owl is rarely seen but it’s often heard.
Hide-and-Seek Owls
Owl sightings are rarer than I believed after my childhood encounter. In the 13 years I’ve lived in Calvert County, I’ve caught only one fleeting glimpse of a bird I thought might have been an owl.

The birds are active at night, with not the slightest whisper betraying them in flight. During the day, they sit like statues, their coloring blending into the surroundings, hiding them even when they perch on a leafless branch.

Some have feather tufts, like the great horned owl, which further improve their ability to blend in. Even some owls without tufts, called round-headed owls, are able to raise their facial feathers to mimic tufts and enhance their camouflage.

Owls do, however, leave a few clues near their favorite roosts. Whitewash against a tree trunk from their droppings or a collection of pellets on the ground can tip you to inspect that tree very carefully. An owl may be sitting in it.

Pellets are the pieces of prey that owls cannot digest. Owls swallow their prey whole, but they lack the digestive juices to break down fur, teeth, feathers or other hard body parts. Once the owl has digested what it can, its stomach compacts the leftovers into a tight pellet that the bird then spits back up. Pellets collect under the owl’s favorite roosts.

But you have to be quick. Weather, especially rain, breaks down the pellets and washes away the owl’s droppings, erasing visible evidence.

You’re most likely to see owls as my father and I did, as they fly across car headlights while hunting near roads. “Roadsides are good hunting locations for owls. The grassy verges and median strips make great habitats for a variety of small rodents,” says Brown. “Unfortunately, owls don’t understand cars. A lot of them get hit and killed.”

An owl you can easily see is Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary’s resident barred owl. He was found, badly injured, by the side of the road. His broken bones healed, but he was permanently blinded. Now he sits in a small cage at the sanctuay, but his life is not as lonely as you might think.

The owl perceives the changes of daylight that mark the seasons, so he continues the hormonal cycles owls experience in the wild. He communicates regularly with the wild owls around him, calling more often in mating season. Brown has surprised female owls hanging on the cage’s wire several times over the years, so he wouldn’t be surprised if the owl has fathered a new generation in the surrounding forest.

Whoo’s Give Them Away
Calls are the best way to hear if you have owls nearby. Owls call most in their courtship season, late winter and early spring, but they may call at any time of the year, keeping tabs on each other.

I first heard owls the spring after I moved to Calvert County. One warm March evening, I was enjoying a symphony of spring peepers when an eerie barking noise filled the night. Before I could identify it, an answering call came from another direction. Soon the animals were playing a vocal tennis match. When it registered, a smile blossomed across my face. Even though it wasn’t the typical hooting I expected, it had to be owls.

The great horned owl, the barred owl and the screech owl have recognizable calls.

The great horned owl emits several short, deep hoots followed by a long drawn-out hoot, earning it the nickname of hoot owl. But the screech owl doesn’t live up to its name; instead of screeching, it whistles with a variety of pitches, sort of like a horse whinnies.

The barred owl is our vocal virtuoso. Experts say its basic call sounds like Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? But barred owls are capable of an incredible range of sounds, including barking calls and screams.

Armed with tape-recorded calls, Brown leads nocturnal groups in search of owls. Trying to fool them into coming nearer for a close encounter, Brown is sometimes far more successful than he anticipates, especially when the owl responds with a different call.

One dark night Brown was on the boardwalk at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary with a group that included a macho guy in his early 20s. Brown had been calling without result. Then, right above, a barred owl split the night with an unearthly shriek. “The young man just jumped out of his skin. He couldn’t get back to the visitors’ center fast enough,” laughs Brown.

In the spring and summer, the owls can sound like a baby screaming from the woods. Police report calls from concerned citizens who’ve heard such bizarre noises. I’ve heard them myself. It’s unnerving how human they sound. But relax. No baby is being tortured in your woods. The noise comes from young owls begging to be fed. When parents don’t respond quickly enough, a young owl may shriek its displeasure.

photo by Merrill Scharmen
Despite its meager size of around 10 inches, the Eastern screech owl is fierce, a territorial defender that will even strike people.
Not Necessarily True
As with most creatures associated with Halloween and other legends, plenty of myths surround owls.

Owls cannot turn their heads 360 degrees. They can, however, can turn their heads far more than most creatures. Humans can turn their heads about 180 degrees; owls manage 270 degrees. They have to. Unlike humans, owls’ eyes are fixed in their sockets. You and I can move our eyes to see left or right. An owl must turn its entire head.

Nor are owls blind during the day. Owls’ eyes are constructed a lot like human eyes, but with many more light receptors. So owls see well in daylight and in conditions of minimal light; however, if there is no light at all, even an owl cannot see.

As keen as their nighttime vision is, owls depend heavily on their hearing. Hidden behind a flap of skin called an ear conch (pronounced konk), are the owl’s ears. Unlike human ears, an owl’s is offset (one higher than the other) on either side of its head. This geometry allows owls to determine not only the direction of a noise but also its distance, “a huge advantage for the owl as it hunts prey scurrying below in the leaf litter,” Brown says.

Owls also have very large eyes in proportion to their heads. “If you had eyes as big as an owl, it’d look like you had saucers on your face,” says Brown, cupping both his hands and touching opposite thumbs and index fingers together over one eye to illustrate the point.

Owl Ghosts Among Us
Brown believes owls, and barn owls in particular, may be responsible for many local ghost stories. The barn owl is a fairly large bird that is mostly white on its breast and under its wings. It has an eerie call that sounds like a rasping hiss or a sigh. “If a barn owl were to pop up suddenly in front of you at night all you’d get is a quick glance of a white, human-like face and then that strange hissing would really raise the hair on the back of your neck. You’d be sure you’d seen a ghost!” says Brown.

What a Halloween treat that would be!

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.