Owls, Birds of the Night

Owls have long been a complex symbol to people and are often misunderstood. In some cultures, owls represent death and destruction, while they represent wisdom and prosperity in others. In all cultures, though, owls have been and continue to be a captivating part of the natural world. Despite ranging greatly in size from the diminutive elf owl (6" tall) to the majestic great gray owl (29" tall), most owls have similar characteristics and roles.

Most owls have large, bright yellow eyes that are fixed in their sockets. Because its eyes are fixed, owls have developed the ability to seemingly rotate their heads completely around. In reality, though, owls cannot rotate their head completely around, but rotate it up to 135° in either direction to check out their periphery. The owls' large eyes and dark coloration make these predators the perfect nocturnal or twilight hunter. In addition to their night vision and camouflage, most owls have developed a silent approach. A fluffy, trailing edge on owls' flight feathers muffles sound and keeps their flight almost undetectable.

Having owls near your home can offer a natural form of pest control. As birds of prey, owls dine on pests like mice, rats, shrews, and snakes. Great horned owls have even been known to prey on smaller owls or falcons in addition to rodents. A healthy population of owls will offer a chemical-free type of pest control and help keep the local ecosystem balanced. Owls are such a strong deterrent to prey that owl decoys can often frighten pests and other birds, keeping them from raiding your garden or flower bed.

Naturally, owls tend to dwell in woodlands in cavities or abandoned hawk or falcon nests. However, owls are often attracted to artificial nest cavities. One way to entice owls into your yard is by placing an owl house on a wall or tree. Eastern and western screech owl houses are most successful if placed 10 to 30 feet high, with the entrance facing north. Barn owls will often use a nest box placed at least 10 feet high, and a fair distance from human reach. Northern saw-whets also enjoy cavity nesting and will use a nest box placed 13 to 20 feet above the ground. If you wish to keep owls around your area, check to see that no bright lights are in the area around the owl house or nest, to prevent altering their daily rhythms. Also, ensure that there are plenty of trees and shelter in the immediate area. Finally, make sure that the area has a good food source for the owl. The forest edge is an excellent area for rodents to congregate, making it perfect for an owl's hunting ground.

The solitary and beautiful owl has mesmerized humans for centuries. Its haunting call evokes our amazement at the beauty of nature. No matter what it represents, an owl roosting in your yard can be a wonderful experience.