Kitty Smith, Certified Master Naturalist, Indian Trail Chapter
I love it when I see or hear an owl; almost everything about the owl is unusual and interesting. They are primarily birds of the twilight and night, although some species are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day. Nature has equipped the owl well for its particular role in life; its whole body is designed to make it an efficient and deadly night hunter.
Special feather adaptations and lightweight bodies allow owls to achieve almost noiseless flight. They can swoop down on their victims unheard while their excellent eyesight is probably the most efficient organ of vision possessed by any animal. Although the owl’s eyeballs are not capable of rotary movement as ours are, the bird overcomes this drawback by having an extremely flexible neck, which enables it to rotate its head up to 270 degrees. As good as their eyesight may be, they still cannot see in complete darkness and actually rely on their exceptionally keen hearing much more than sight when hunting. Some people have the mistaken idea that the tufts of feathers located on the tops of some owls’ heads are ears. These “ear tufts” have nothing to do with the ears or the owl’s hearing. They are merely elongated head feathers that aid the bird in its camouflage efforts by looking like a broken, upright tree stub; they can be erected or depressed at will, perhaps to communicate attack, withdrawal, or some other type of owl body language.
Four types of owls are common in Ellis and Navarro Counties and each has some fascinating facts. The common barn owl (Tyto alba) is an extraordinary bird, able to hunt in complete darkness while relying solely on its hearing. No other bird that has ever been tested has shown the incredible hearing the barn owl possesses. The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) prefers open woodlands along with farmlands. Great horned owls occupy the most extensive range of any owl species and are found throughout North America. This is the only type of owl that makes a meal out of skunks on a regular basis possibly because it has no sense of smell. The female is the larger of the sexes, and this owl will use a nest made by other birds rather than construct its own. The eastern screech owl (Otus asio) is a smallish owl, with a large specimen being less than a foot tall. This owl is fairly common in most types of woods (evergreen or deciduous; urban or rural), particularly near water. Most bird watchers know this species from its trilling or whinnying song. Also known as the hoot owl, the barred owl (Strix varia) gets its name from the horizontal white bars on its chest and vertical bars on its belly. People often think it is calling, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?”
If owls weren’t around to provide round-the-clock pest control, the numbers of mice and other rodents would soar. That would be a big problem for farmers, because rodents are a major cause of crop damage and loss. Owls can thrive in the backyards of both urban and rural homeowners. It is fun to see and hear these fascinating creatures. Take time to learn more about owls and you will probably agree that it would be great to encourage them to nest near you! Try placing an owl house in your yard this year.
Do you think nature should be part of our everyday life, not just somewhere to go on the weekends? You are invited to attend our free, open-to-the-public, monthly program on the fourth Monday of the month at 7 pm at the Red Oak Library, 200 Lakeview Pkwy, Red Oak, TX. For more information on the Indian Trail Master Naturalist Chapter, contact the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service at 972-825-5175 or visit our website: https://txmn.org/indiantrail/.