A Hoot and a Half

There are a couple truths about owls that you may find surprising. First, you might not know that they’re ruthless hunters, designed for stealth. Second, you probably don’t realize that we share our neighborhoods with them.

Before you panic, let me assure you that owls want nothing to do with humans, and their presence in our neighborhoods is a gift, considering their big appetites help control pest populations. Some people even go so far as to construct owl houses to attract owls to their yard!

So in this month of Halloween, we’d like to pay tribute to the silent (and sometimes spooky) bird of prey, gazing down on our streets at night in search of its next kill and softly hooting outside our windows.

Owls are nocturnal birds of prey within the order Stringiformes, which is a classification of large birds with an upright stance, broad head and sharp talons. The four most common owl species in Alabama are the screech owl, barn owl, barred owl and the horned owl.

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While humans have seven neck vertebrae, owls have 14, enabling the birds to rotate their necks and heads as much as 270 degrees. This is helpful considering owls’ eyes are fixed in their sockets.

An owl pellet is a tight clump of undigested animal parts (mostly the bones and fur of small rodents and birds) regurgitated by an owl. The pellets are a useful tool for researchers when examining an owl’s diet and lifestyle.

Owls often nest in tree cavities or the old nests of hawks, osprey or squirrels. As most are non-migratory, owls will often reuse nests that have proven suitable in the past.

These birds of prey are masters of stealth. The color of their feathers renders owls practically invisible when standing still among the branches of Alabama pines and oaks. Furthermore, an owl’s wings are built with feathers specialized to alter air turbulence and create near-silent flight.

Owls among us

  • Of the four prevalent owl species in our area, the screech owl and horned owl are the most commonly sighted owls in local neighborhoods. Barred owls prefer country and delta livin’, while barn owls like large and open buildings. Go figure!
  • Owls are attracted to midtown and downtown Mobile, where they can feed on pests commonly associated with historic homes and buildings. Furthermore, sprawling oak trees provide a wonderful habitat for owls, as well as a tasty food source in the form of tree roaches. Yum.
  • An owl can be a turkey hunter’s best friend. When searching for roosting turkeys, a hunter will often make an owl call in the hopes of inspiring a nearby turkey to gobble in response. The barred owl call is perhaps the most distinct in our area, resembling the phrase, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
  • Susan Clement, biologist at Mobile’s Environmental Studies Center, says cars present the biggest threat to owls. “I’d say about 75 percent of the owl-related calls we get involve cars, ” she says, “being that they hunt at night and don’t know to look both ways.” For assistance with an owl-related emergency, call 221-5000.
  • “I get a lot of calls from people concerned that an owl has taken their pet, ” says Clement. “Most of the time when a pet disappears, a car, coyote or fox is the culprit. Even a large horned owl is only about three pounds, so it can’t physically carry off a 9-pound cat.” That said, Clement advises against keeping a kitten or exceptionally small dog in the yard.

Special thanks to Susan Clement at the Environmental Studies Center for her assistance with this article. The center is located at 6101 Girby Road in Mobile.

Text by Breck Pappas

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