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  • by Chris Stewart

Those Wise Old Owls

A New Look at the Old Hoots

Reputations, once established, are hard to shake. Just ask Bill Martin. Whenever the feisty manager of baseball's Oakland A's visits his neighborhood tavern, every marshmallow salesman in the place feels duty-bound to pick a fight. No matter what Martin does for the rest of his career, he'll be a marked man in the eyes of these candy vendors. If owls could talk, they'd undoubtedly tell Martin he wasn't the only one with such a problem. For centuries, these members of the animal kingdom's Strigidae family have had to live with reputations they didn't deserve and atone for acts they never committed. It hasn't been easy.

The owls' image problems may have begun in ancient Greece where the citizens considered one of the species - the little European owl - to be a special ward of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Even though the owl possessed no extraordinary intelligence, the Greeks believed that since this bird's face resembled a human it had to be smart. In the time of the Roman empire, however, the bird became the embodiment of evil tidings. "An owl alighting on a housetop presaged death," Alexander Wetmore wrote in Water, Prey and Game Birds of North America. "Its call at night aroused fear. the owl flew with witches and served as an ingredient in unsavory brews." No proof of this, however, has as yet been found.

Such misconceptions persisted on the western side of the Atlantic as well where the Pima Indians of the American desert thought their dead would pass into the body of an owl. Whether or not the spirits of the dead did take up residence inside these birds, owls did enjoy a great deal of security among the Pima. Unfortunately, owls have been treated with far less respect by most other Americans.

Part of the owls' difficulties in this country stemmed from trends in the fashion industry in the latter half of the 19th century when fowl-adorned hats were de rigeur. No self-conscious socialite felt well dressed unless she sported bird headgear, and as a result, owls found themselves very much in demand. In his book Wildlife of North America, Peter Matthiessen described what one observer says in 1886 during a day spent strolling around the streets of New York. "Five hundred and forty-two out of seven hundred hats brandished mounted birds," Matthiessen wrote. "There were twenty-odd recognizable species, including owls, grackles, grouse and a green heron." Though Federal laws, public taste, and the efforts of conservationists eventually curtailed these millinery customs, owls faced far more serious threats from its undeserved reputation as a competitor with man.

Before the advent of the conservation movement, and before people understood the role owls play in "balancing" nature, owl-like hawks and other members of the Raptor family - were hunted by sportsmen and farmers who resented the birds' eating habits. Since the owl is a predatory bird, its diet includes a wide range of living things from insects and beetles to rats, mice, rabbits, and other rodents. Larger family members, such as the Great Horned Owl and the Snowy Owl, will prey on chickens, squirrels, and smaller game birds if given the chance - a tendency which once made these birds targets for destruction. In 1886, for example, Pennsylvania offered 50 cents for every owl, hawk, weasel, or mink brought in.

Fortunately, from the owl's point of view, ecological arguments based on economic principles have awakened sportsmen and farmers to the dangers of owl extinction. The year following Pennsylvania's "Scalp Act," rodents had a relatively uninterrupted feast in that state's fields. "It is estimated that the farmers of Pennsylvania's lost over four million

dollars one year through the ravages of field mice because a wholesale slaughtering of owls had been ignorantly encouraged by rewards the year before," Neltje Blanchan reported in Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted. "Nature adjusts her balances so wisely that we cannot afford to tamper with them."

Blanchan reached this conclusion in 1902, and few experts today would disagree. While the larger owls will undoubtedly continue to feed on whatever prey available - including unsuspecting chickens - they shouldn't be made to pay for their innate inner drives. "We cannot condemn the entire species because some occasionally kill pen-reared domestic poultry or those pheasants designed for release on game lands," Ronald Austin and John Holt wrote in The World of the Great Horned Owl. "The owl is an important and necessary part of any wildlife community and should be recognized as such. Sometimes local control measures may be unavoidable, but a campaign of wholesale extermination is not the answer."

Although the vast majority of people today understand that owls play a vital role in nature's scheme, several common owl myths still linger on. One holds that owls are blind during the day, and they are forced to hunt at night. According to Austin and Holt, people tend to believe this because owls rarely expose themselves in daylight. "But the eyes of the owl are among the most remarkable in the bird world," they reported. "In darkness, the pupils can be dilated almost as wide as the eye itself, giving the retina access to as much light as possible." Coupled with acute hearing sensitivity, this makes the owl a formidable night-time hunter.

"As light intensity increases," Austin and Holt continued, "a gradual contraction of the pupils allows just the right amount to reach the retina and form the image, and in a very bright light, the pupil becomes so small that it appears as a mere dark speck in the yellow iris." Despite these advantages, the owls do have visual limitations. Owing to an abundance of rod-shaped receptor cells in the retina - cells which aid night vision - owls lack a sufficient quantity of cone-shaped cells with which to distinguish colors. Theirs is a world of grey, black and white only.

Some people also believe that owls possess heads which spin round and round in circles like a perpetual, uninterrupted twisting tops. Anyone who ever stopped at the former wildlife exhibit at the Crawford Notch State Park to watch the caged owl there can easily see how this notion began. Unlike most birds, an owl's eyes are fixed on the front of its relatively flat face, giving it its excellent binocular vision so necessary to determine distance. Although this features permits owls to judge distance accurately and quickly - giving the bird yet another advantage in hunting - its field of vision remains very limited. To see anything on the edge of this field, owls must turn their heads in an instant to follow moving prey. This they do with strong neck muscles which contract so rapidly that they appear, at times, to be made of rubber.

Detecting just how the owl does this isn't always easy. When he was a youngster, author Alexander Wetmore recounted how he discovered this secret. "I was told that a perching owl would follow with its eyes a person moving around and around the perch until eventually, the owl's head would twist right off," Wetmore recalled. He had a chance to test his theory on a trip to Florida when he happened upon a Screech Owl perched on a low pine.

"I walked around the bird for some time," Wetmore continued. "He kept his eyes steadily on me, but his head did not fall off. Not until I conducted other experiments at a somewhat more mature age did I detect how an owl snaps its head around, giving the semblance of continuous motion in one direction."

At times, exaggeration plays a part in the owls' public image just as it does with other wildlife. Their ability, for instance to suddenly appear "from nowhere" when attacking prey has given the bird an added air of mysteriousness. Its nocturnal lifestyle and hooting calls simply add to the enigma. After all, no horror movie would be compete without the distant sound of an owl crying in the night.

In fact, the owl's silent flight has nothing to do with sorcery. Unlike other birds, an owl can glide noiselessly toward its prey - guided by its acute hearing and sight - on specially adapted wings. These softened margins at the tips of an owl's wing feathers are pliant, downy material which eliminates the whirling sounds produced when other birds fly.

Of the 134 species of owls, five are permanent year-round New England residents. The most formidable of these, the Great Horned Owl, can grow to be over two feet in length, with a wingspan as large as four feet. By contract, his smaller cousin, the Saw-Whet Owl, reaches a maximum size of only eight-and-a-half inches. Known as the "Flying Tiger" or the "lord high executioner of the owl tribe," the Great Horned Owl is the fiercest of these birds.

"No one ever finds this hunter in poor condition," Blanchan wrote. "Diligent and overpowering in the chase, he feasts while others starve, bringing down upon the heads of several members of his tribe the punishment of sins of his commission by undiscriminating farmers." Outward appearances to the contrary, the Great Horned Owl finds its match, oddly enough, in the crow.

While the Great Horned is one of the few birds which occasionally preys on the crow during its nocturnal feeding, crows band together in the daylight hours to harass and taunt him. "Whenever a crow discovers an owl by day, it promptly sounds an alarm call," Austin and Holt reported. "Instantly, all crows within hearing respond to the call, a noisy mob quickly assembles, cawing madly and flying at their foe in a wild rage, but usually keeping a safe margin between themselves and the owl's deadly reach." Rather than fighting back, most owls dart off into the trees, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and their tormentors.

In the end, owls - like other animals - are more complex and less threatening than they may first appear. In a word, they're important components of the ecosystem we all depend on. As biologists John and Frank Craighead notes, "Man can best manage raptor predation for his own ends if he does not disrupt it, for it is a vital component of the complex forces that regulate animal numbers and influences human life." Anyone tempted to shoot an owl that had taken one too many chickens might think of this first. Besides, the Pima Indians may have been right.


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