They have been described as wise, omens of death, voices of the underworld. But in reality, they are just birds, feathered wildlife, members of the above-ground avian community. Well, most of them anyways.
I am referring to the group of birds of prey known as owls. Active at night (at least most of them), hunters by sound and sight, hooters in the dark, these nocturnal creatures are more “heard than seen.” They are the nighttime equivalent of hawks and eagles, and are predators equipped with excellent night vision and acute hearing.
One If By Day
Most owls have nocturnal activity clocks. Roosting during the day, these birds become active during the nighttime. Some, like the burrowing and short-eared owls, may be active during the day or the “crepuscular period” around dawn or dusk. Of the two, the burrowing owl is far more common; a sighting of a short-eared owl in southeastern Utah is a rare occurrence.
Birds of open country, burrowing owls live in existing or abandoned prairie dog towns. The owls use abandoned burrows for their nest sites, although the birds may dig a hole themselves, if needed. In their habitat, the burrowing owls take a variety of prey from grasshoppers, beetles, small lizards, rodents, and snakes to small birds. These owls hunt by either running down prey or using short flights punctuated by a pounce.
Two If By Night
The majority of Canyon Country owls are active at night. Although hikers may flush an owl from its daytime roost, most owls are “observed” at night by sound, not sight.
The call of the great horned owl, an ascending and descending who’s awake? me too, is one of the classic sounds of the desert. The deep, base-like notes carry well in the canyons. Gender of the great horned may be established when two owls are hooting back and forth - males have the lower pitch.
Named for their large ear tufts, great horneds are the “flying tigers” of the Southwest. Everything that comes within their radar screen may become prey – mice, rabbits, squirrels, bats, snakes, skunks, frogs, birds, even other owls, just to start the list. Pliny the Elder called these birds “eagle owls” for their large size and ability to take pretty much any prey they want.
After a meal, regurgitated pellets comprised of indigestible material offers a unique insight into an owl’s diet. When dissected, these pellets contain the bones, fur, feathers or exoskeletons of the prey. Sometimes determining the prey’s identity is worthy of its own C.S.I. mini-series.
Another ear tufted owl is the long-eared owl. Smaller than the great horned, this medium-sized owl has an orangish facial disk and heavily streaked undersides. In winter, the birds may roost communally, a unique attribute in the owl kingdom.
Not all Canyon Country owls produce hoots like the great horned or long-eared owls. Barn owls hiss and sound like escaping steam. Flammulated, northern saw-whets and northern pygmy owls produce hollow whistles; the cadence of the notes helps to identify the species. The spotted owl has a barking quality to its call, and the western screech owl doesn’t screech, but rather makes a call of accelerating whistles punctuated by a descending trill.
So even though a daytime glimpse of a perched or flushed owl is a thrilling sight, the best way to understand these owls is to listen for their nocturnal calls. This may entail some stumbling around in the dark (carry a flashlight!), but, I think, gives a greater appreciation for the owls ability to successfully hunt under the cover of darkness.