What Owl is That?

December 5th, 2017


A Great Horned Owl in the Native Animal Exhibit

A lot of animal questions are asked of me and one of the most frequent is, “I have an owl that lives in my woods that I can hear and see, but I don’t know what kind it is.” That statement is usually followed by imitations of calls, descriptions of birds, stories and locales. I’ve even had folks tell me they hear monkeys in their yard! Yep! We’ll get back to that one! The adjectives and phrases used are - loud hoots, huge, size of a small plane, came out of nowhere, must have been 2-3’ tall, must have weighed 20lbs, really brown, really dark – the one problem is most of the descriptions don’t match reality so then I have to become an investigator; asking questions of the inquiring individual to help narrow things down. One of the easiest things I can do is accurately imitate an owl call or play one on my phone. That usually nails the ID. The inquiring person’s face develops a smile followed by a “Yes, that’s it!” conclusion. Ahhh, success!

The most common owls in our neck of East Tennessee are the Eastern Screech Owl, Barn Owl, Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl. Reflection Riding has all of these species in their animal ambassador collection-some can be seen when you visit the Native Animal Exhibit and some reside off exhibit, but a simple request to see one will usually work.

The app I use on my phone is Sibley eGuide to Birds. There’s a full version and a free LITE version. Sibley is considered by some to be THE bird guide. I also use the Cornell Lab Merlin app. The website I like the most is Cornell’s All About Birds; it’s a comprehensive, user-friendly resource. Check out TWRA’s website Watchable Wildlife, too. You’ll find audio so you can hear a call as well as photos or renderings to help with visual ID.

Tish Gailmard Holding an Eastern Screech Owl - Photo by Mark McKnight

The smallest tufted owl in our woods is the Eastern Screech Owl, weighing in at 4 oz, but packing a HUGE attitude (think Napolean)! If you’re one of the smallest guys in the woods, you’ve got to be tough or get eaten! Many times, this bird is mistaken for a baby Great Horned Owl and I can assure you if the screech owl could speak, he would vehemently defend his age! A loud whinny and trill comes from this small bird. I am often serenaded at night by one in my woods – it’s a beautiful call! You might see either color morph of this species, gray or red. In my opinion, the gray morph has the best camouflage of all the native raptors, looking just like tree bark.

The Barn owl - aka monkey faced owl, heart faced owl and ghost owl - is listed “under management concern” in Tennessee and endangered in nearby states. You just don’t see this magnificently beautiful and unusual bird very often in our area. The Barn owl has a very prominent, heart shaped, white facial disc that acts like a satellite dish bringing sound into its ultra-sensitive ears. Studies on this bird’s hearing have shown it can hear a mouse’s heartbeat 30 feet away – that’s superhero hearing! One cool fact about this very athletic mouser is its performance of a defensive dance called toe dusting. With its head lowered and shaking back and forth, wings spread and super loud screaming call, it’s enough to conjure up ideas of ghosts.

Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all! These would be the words put to the Barred Owl’s call. This round faced, fairly large owl gets its name from the horizontal and vertical dark brown and white barring on its chest. This raptor’s call is very distinctive and the one I mimic the most garnering smiles of, “that’s it!” I love this call! Multiple Barred owls calling together sound like monkeys having a rockin’ party in the trees and definitely make the novice nature enthusiast wonder what is partying in their woods! Even though owls are nocturnal, Barred owls can often be heard and seen in the afternoon. They prefer to be near bodies of water. If you go on one of Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center's Paddle by Moonlight trips, you will have a good chance to see and hear Barred Owls.

Looks like a barred owl, sounds like a monkey?

Large, magnificent, absolutely beautiful and regal are just a few descriptions for the Great Horned Owl. This king of the forest reigns supreme in our neck of the woods and has an attitude to go with its rank. Old timers call this bird of prey the Hoot owl after its similar sounding call. This raptor eats just about anything it wants to and goes just about anywhere it wants to. If an adult Red Shouldered  Hawk and an adult Great Horned Owl crossed territories, there would be a power struggle, otherwise, the Great Horned Owl rules. Massive feet with 4 talons per foot pack a powerful wallup of strength up to 500 psi! This James-Dean-like bird is also equipped with silent flight and is often called the tiger of the sky.

To get more familiar with these incredible raptors, visit Reflection Riding and check out the websites and apps I mentioned, then go out at night and use your newfound knowledge to identify your avian neighbors! You can begin an owl conversation by imitating calls or answering calls - see if you can bring one in closer!

Posted by Tish Gailmard

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