Nighttime Callers: Our Owl Neighbors

Screech owl was special guest at Nature Museum’s workshop

By Alison Rooney

In the latest in a series of wildlife presentations he has given at Hubbard Lodge, Hudson Highlands Nature Museum (HHNM) educator Carl Heitmuller did a show-and-tell about owls, specifically the 18 species found in North America (there are 134 species of owl worldwide), many of which reside locally.

The show part was the live screech owl he brought along for the occasion. Heitmuller began, in fact, by noting that this bird, as with all of the other birds kept by the HHNM, had an injury (in this case a broken wing, resulting from being hit by a car), which precluded him from living in the wild. A great horned owl has been in residence at the HHNM for 28 years.

At the onset of the program, co-sponsored by the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, Heitmuller asked the attendees, “Why’d you come?” The responses ranged from “We hear them every night” to the succinct “Owls are cool.”

Beginning with basics, Heitmuller confirmed that owls are raptors and thus they have keen eyesight, beaks perfectly made for gripping prey and feet designed for catching their food. While noting that owls are nocturnal, he mentioned that unlike some nocturnal creatures, they can also be seen during the day at times.

With both eyes facing forward, unlike many other bird species, they have what Heitmuller described as binocular vision, meaning they have a great depth of field. Their huge eye sockets take up so much room in their skulls that they can’t move their eyes, so they turn their heads, which can rotate 270 degrees around. Some owls, including the great horned, have the ability to spot a mouse moving, in the dark, 400 feet away.

Special guest at the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum's June 7 owl presentation: a screech owl, held by wildlife educator Carl Heitmuller

Special guest at the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum’s June 7 owl presentation: a screech owl, held by wildlife educator Carl Heitmuller

To find their food, owls rely first on their ears, then their eyes. Unusually, one ear is slightly lower than the other, and both ears face forward. The keen eyes and ears make up for the lack of the ability to smell, for only birds like vultures and buzzards are able to smell, Heitmuller said.

They catch food with their talons, which are serrated and covered in feathers, keeping them warm and thereby aiding in hunting. The outside talons, like human thumbs, are opposable, which let owls switch positions from merely perching or preparing to hunt. They usually attack the backbones of their prey. Along with being extremely sharp, these talons have tremendous squeezing force. As a comparison, Heitmuller described a typical human male grip as 70 pounds per square inch, while the equivalent in an owl is 600 pounds per square inch.

Having already passed along an owl skull, Heitmuller then produced a talon from a great horned owl, warning the audience to mind their fingers as the still-sharp nails are more than capable of puncturing skin.

Owls have the advantage of near-silent flight, the better to surprise their prey. “When an owl flies, you hear nothing; it just glides — the serrations allow for quiet gliding,” Heitmuller explained.

Most of the owls found in the New York area consume a varied diet of mice, rats, frogs, beetles, squirrels, chipmunks, snakes and porcupines, as well as other owls. Owls don’t chew but instead either swallow their food whole or use their serrated talons to break it apart into smaller pieces. In addition to the usual elimination, owls also cough up pellets, which are made up of compressed fur, feathers and bones.

The foot and talons of a great horned owl, displayed at the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum's June 7 owl presentation

The foot and talons of a great horned owl, displayed at the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum’s June 7 owl presentation

Going through a slide presentation of a number of owls commonly found around this area, Heitmuller spotlighted the smallest of them, the saw-whet owl, found in the eastern half of the U.S.; the barred owl, whose call sounds like “Who cooks for you?” sometimes followed by a trill; barn owls, which many farmers attract by constructing boxes in the top ceiling corners of barns, allowing them to control the vermin that barns attract; the snowy owl, which has used the Hudson River as a flyway for the past two winters; and the great gray owl, of which sightings are rare.

At this point, Heitmuller produced the pièce de résistance, a screech owl that had been transported in a wooden nest box. Instructing the audience to be calm and quiet so as not to rattle the bird, Heitmuller got the owl to rest his talons in his hand, and walked round the room, showing off the small, sprightly reddish-brown bird.

In closing the presentation, Heitmuller spoke about calling to owls, instructing the audience to learn the calls. He advised beginning with calls for smaller owls, like the screech owl, to prevent them from thinking their predators are nearby and fleeing upon hearing the calls of larger owls. He also said not to “over-call,” as this could confuse the owls and cause them to stop responding.

Photos by A. Rooney


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