O is for owl.

Last night, we spent some time chatting with the owl that currently inhabits the woods behind our house. He was especially eager to converse with Patrick, though less interested in what the girls and I had to say. Naturally, the owl came up again this morning when I found Micah and Milla “hooting” at each other.

Max believed he could identify the type of owl by its song, which led him to the opinion that it was a tawny owl. But science is never so simple, so I asked him to consult our bird guides and make an inventory of the owl species which live or visit in our area. Reluctantly, he agreed.

Hypothesis: We have a tawny owl in our woods, and we know this by his song.

Investigation: There are several species of owls which live in Alabama.
1. Barn owl
2. Eastern screech owl
3. Great horned owl
4. Barred owl
5. Short-eared owl

To narrow down the possibilities, we looked at specific habitats for each owl. The short-eared owl, which is of conservation concern, seemed unlikely because its habitat is grasslands and open fields. The barn owl also seemed unlikely as its habitat is more specific than our little woods.

The Eastern screech owl doesn’t fit the criterion because it’s song sounds nothing like the “Who HOO who HOO” we witnessed last night. The screech owl has a tremulous, descending wail with soft purrs and trills. The call is not a screech but rather a soft, mournful whinny that can be heard most often in the fall and spring months of the year.

The Eastern screech owl can be found in open deciduous woods, wood lots, suburban areas, lake shores, and old barns. Roosting during the day in hollow trees where it sits facing the bright daylight, Otus asio can see in the brightest daylight but prefers to remain hidden in dark corners of old buildings or other dark areas for protection. When discovered during the daylight hours, it often freezes in an upright position relying on cryptic coloration to escape detection. (Alabama Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources)

To me, it seems like our friend can be identified as one of the following which, interestingly enough, do not coexist in the same habitats due to the fact that one preys on the other.

The Great horned owl has many characteristics which fit those of our hooting friend. Great horned owls are found in a wide array of forested habitats, including dense woodlands. They spend most of the day perched in a protected area or tree and do most of their hunting at night, but may be active at any time during the day. They are solitary birds of prey that form strong pair bonds during the courting and nesting season only. They typically use abandoned nests of other large birds such as hawks, herons, and crows. They have also been known to nest in hollow trees, abandoned buildings, and various other structures. Typical nests in Alabama are found high in pine or other evergreen trees.

Great horned owls, like many owls, sit quietly in a tree watching for movement and listening for sounds that give away the presence of a prey species. After locating a prey item, great horned owls take flight and silently swoop down and capture the prey with their sharp talons. Adaptations in their feathers allow them to fly silently through the night air.

Great horned owls eat a wide variety of prey including rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, ducks, birds, and larger animals such as geese and an occasional turkey. They may even prey on other raptors such as owls, osprey, and falcons. Great horned owls are the only animal to regularly eat skunks. Small prey species are swallowed whole while larger prey is ripped into smaller pieces that can be swallowed. Indigestible items such as hair, bones, feathers, and fur are regurgitated in pellets. (Alabama Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources)

The Barred owl seems a likely candidate for our backyard friend:

Barred owls are most commonly found in deep woodlands (hardwood, coniferous, or mixed), bottomland hardwood tracts, and swamps. These owls do, however, range widely over adjacent open areas while hunting. Barred owls have adapted to living near man and are regularly found in small but dense patches of woodland near houses or farms. Barred owls are notably more common in areas of mature to over-mature hardwood timber. These areas better provide the open midstory and understory characteristics the owls seem to prefer for hunting and are much more likely to contain the large tree cavities favored for nesting. Barred owls are almost never found in habitats harboring populations of great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) who are one of their few predators other than man. (Alabama Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources)

Color a party owl.

Get inspired by this gorgeous owl to make your own. All you need is paper and a set of markers. Sketch and color. Or whip out the paints. Hat tip to Teacher Bits and Bobs for the image.

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