Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

December 12, 2012

Exploring Nature: Night owls

By Don Hazel
Sun contributor

CROSSVILLE — Some things are better heard than seen. Owls are beautiful, but since they usually only come out at night, hearing them might be the only way to know they are around. There are plenty of owls around here, but have you ever seen one? Most folks haven’t. They are birds of the night, and you have a much better chance of hearing them than you do of seeing one.

We have at least four, maybe even a couple more, kinds of owls around here. With a little information, you can learn how to recognize each kind by their distinctive sound and, perhaps, even see one. 

I have personally heard and seen three kinds of owls here in Eastern Tennessee. Eastern screech owls are the smallest–only about 8 inches high. They can be either red or gray; there are two color phases, but they are the same species, just dressed in different colored feathers. They have several calls, but the most common and the most unusual is a whinny that sounds like a soft horse whinny. Go outside at night and listen very, very carefully and you might hear one. My guess is that you might have heard one sometime and just didn’t realize that you were hearing an owl. On a night hike a few months ago, I played a screech owl tape and three or four answered from the North Trail near my neighborhood.

These little screech owls often get hit by cars. They sometimes soar across a roadway to catch a mouse in roadside litter that knuckleheads throw out of their cars. My neighbor Rudy recently found one that had been knocked silly by a car ahead of him. He rescued it and took it to a wildlife rehabilitator. After a week of rehab the owl was returned to Rudy, and I went with him to release it near where he found it. The little red owl was at first reluctant to come out of the cage, but once he did, he was gone in a flash…actually half a flash because my camera was a flash too late to capture the event.

Most folks have heard of great horned owls. These guys are large – up to 22 inches tall. They are considered the wolves of the night because they are fearless predators. Great horned owls are one of the few animals brave enough to regularly eat skunks. They get their name from feather tufts that stick up looking like ears, although their actual ears are hidden farther down on their head. Great-horned owls can be recognized by their large size and beautiful yellow eyes. The call of the great-horned owl is a soft hoo hoo, hoo hoo hoo. They call frequently in the winter because they nest as early as December or January. Over the next month is a good time to go outside at night and listen carefully for them. The birds are large but their call is soft.

An owl just as large as the great horned owls is a barred owl. Barred owls don’t have the ear tufts and they have brown eyes. They get their name from their streaked breast. Their call is distinctive. They are very loud and their call sounds like “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” They will call day or night and it is one of the great sounds in nature. These owls are often found near water or in river bottoms. I have called these owls into my backyard with an owl tape that I have, and I saw one in the daytime near the overlook in Fairfield Glade a few weeks ago. He posed in a tree beside the road, but my camera, unfortunately was at home.

Barn owls live around here also. They are the ones with the white heart shaped face. I haven’t seen one here, but I did run into one in Texas once. I had climbed up to a deer stand that was actually a small house in a tree. The last hunter had left the window open and a barn owl had claimed the place as his own. When I climbed the ladder and opened the door, the owl exploded out of the window and scared the heck out of me. He left behind at least 20 dead mice in the deer stand. I don’t know why he just deposited them in the stand and didn’t eat them. Barn owls don’t have a nice call, only a hissing shriek that you will probably never hear.

Small, 8 inch tall, northern saw-whet owls live in highest areas of the Smoky Mountains, but probably not here in Cumberland County. A couple of other species might show up here from time to time, but the ones that you are most likely to hear are screech, barred or great horned owls.

We miss lots of the happenings of nature because most mammals and owls only come out at night. Go out at night once in a while and listen carefully; what you can’t see, you just might hear.

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