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Owls: myth and mystery

Posted: March 18, 2014 5:00 p.m.
Updated: March 19, 2014 5:00 a.m.

By Josh Arrants

In my last article, we delved into the origins of superstitions surrounding owls and looked at the fantastic way they’re built to take advantage of the nighttime. In this article, we look at the individual species that are found throughout Kershaw County and marvel at their natural excellence.

The largest of our resident owls is the Great Horned Owl. Slightly larger than the Red-tailed Hawk, this owl is at the top of the food chain when it comes to birds around here. Nicknamed "Flying Tigers," Great Horned Owls will kill and eat other birds of prey, as well as raccoons, skunks, opossums, and even cats. There are even documented cases of them killing porcupines and even standing their ground against eagles. In short, they are tougher than I am. They also happen to be a lot stronger, too. Great Horned Owls have quite the grip on them; about seven times stronger than even the strongest person reading this article. Many people associate Great Horned Owls with impending death and their presence as a bad omen. Several Native American tribes; however, viewed them as quite the opposite, even believing only the most virtuous individuals became Great Horned Owls when they died. I am always impressed when I see them and can tell you that the Great Horned Owl is the only bird ever to make me nervous when I banded it.

Most birds breed in the spring. That’s what we all learned and what we’ve all observed in our yards. Not the Great-Horned Owl. Along with other large birds, like eagles, they must begin in the coldness of winter. Great-Horned Owls may begin mating rituals as early as November and start nesting as early as December. Why so early? It takes a long time to raise really large chicks, like those Great-Horned Owls do.

Next are another well-known owl. Barred Owls are our water loving owls. They live in swamps and near rivers and streams. They are the most common owl to be seen in the daytime and are frequently seen flying around in broad daylight, particularly during breeding season when they must find plenty of food for hungry owlets. Barred Owls hunt for everything from snakes and rodent to other birds and even fish. I once observed a Barred Owl catch and eat several crayfish on the banks of a creek. They are often associated with success in hunting. This dates back to Native American beliefs that Barred Owls granted hunters the ability to see and hear prey with the same prowess as the owl. Barred Owls, among other owls, are also thought to portend bad weather. One popular belief in the South is that extremely vocal and active Barred Owls warn of storms or very cold weather. Many animals, not just owls, become more active prior to changes in weather. Currently, there is a great deal of research being done to study how animals sense these changes; with most finding animals are sensitive to changes in barometric pressure.

Camden is known for its horses and no horse property is complete without a barn. The Barn Owl is known for, and indeed was named for, its inclination for living in barns. This owl is one of the coolest birds there is. While all owls are phenomenal, there is something extra special about a Barn Owl. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and have sight and hearing that is superb, even by owl standards. Barn Owls can successfully hunt in total darkness and can identify prey under several inches of grass, hay, and even snow. They do this by having far more of the light sensing rods in their eyes than humans, as well a facial disc of feathers that funnels sound to ears that are offset on the sides of their heads, giving them unmatched triangulation abilities in pitch black situations. They even memorize individual sounds that various species of prey make and recognize each of these sounds. Barn Owls can tell by just the sound of rodents digging whether it's a mouse or a shrew.

These owls are the likely source for many beliefs in ghosts and stories of hauntings. They are mostly white in color, fly silently, come out at night, and did I mention they scream? Imagine going outside after dark and seeing a flash of white sail by without making a noise, only to disappear in the darkness, followed by a blood-chilling scream. If you didn’t know any better, you would think you had seen a ghost, too! Unfortunately, their populations are dropping and they are no longer found in many places they were once common. The use of pesticides and changes in land management has led to a substantial decline in the number of Barn Owls. These birds are better at controlling rodent populations than any cat and are an all-natural alternative to chemicals and pesticides; thus, their presence should be encouraged. I am keenly interested in finding out where Barn Owls are in Kershaw County; so, if you have them on your property, I’d like to document them.

Our last and smallest resident owl is the Eastern Screech-Owl. Standing only about 8 inches tall, my grandmother called them "shivering owls" because of their whinny-like call that is often followed by a haunting trill. She also believed that, if it was heard for three consecutive nights, this bird brought with it doom and almost certain death to a loved one or family member. This belief was almost as absurd as what she thought a person should do to make the owl "hush up." She sincerely believed you would have to "choke your pinky," squeezing your little finger until the bird flies away. I am a scientist and, though I loved my grandmother dearly, I do not subscribe to any of her superstitions. She would probably freak out to know I’ve had Eastern Screech-Owls nesting in a box in my front yard for six years in a row. If she were here now, I’d be the first show her the nest box, place an owlet in her hands, and assure her that I’ve lost no one important because of the owls. If the owls did, in fact, bring death every three nights, I’d have no friends or family left after six years!

Now that we know some of the facts and we understand the origins of some of the superstitions surrounding these incredible birds, I hope we can all appreciate them for the natural marvels they truly are. They are not bringers of sickness and death and they are certainly not evil creatures. Instead, they are masters of stealth and have excelled at using the very darkness they live in. So, the next time you hear or see an owl, remember you are in the presence of an evolutionary marvel.

(Josh Arrants has worked with birds throughout South Carolina for more than 12 years, specializing in the management of the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as well as songbirds and birds of prey.

A graduate of the University of South Carolina, his research interests are the influence of nature, particularly birds, on human culture. Arrants has lectured on birds all the way from Texas to California; from Florida to Montana.)

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