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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Owls

One of the best presentations at the Turkey Run “Eagles in Flight” program was the owl talk given by Leslie Grow, a DNR naturalist and licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She works at Hardy Lake, a DNR reservoir which also has the state’s only raptor rehabilitation center. The center takes in injured or orphaned birds of prey and releases them into the wild when possible. The center also has 10 permanent residents that are used for educational programs because their injuries do not allow the birds to be released. Grow brought four of her owls to the program to show us.

The first owl she showed us was a gray screech owl, which weighed only 6 oz. Little owl – big sound! Screech owls make several different sounds, a whinny, a cricket-like trill, and a scream when startled. The screech owl is an owl of the deep woods. It nests in cavities in trees. It doesn’t really build a nest, but rather just lays the eggs in the hole in the tree. The screech owl can be gray or a reddish-brown color. She had one of each to show us. I heard them around our house in Howe. The gray one she showed us had only half a wing on one side and only one eye, which is why he was not being released back into the wild.

Indiana has one endangered owl, with only 50 pairs known to nest in Indiana. That is the barn owl, an owl of the open farmland. A barn owl is a very handsome creature with a white face and chest. They dine mainly on mice and voles. They adapted to the agrarian life of humans very well, nesting in wooden barns and sometimes laying their eggs on a bare wooden beam. But as we switch over more and more to metal pole barns, the owls are losing nesting sites. The metal barns are tighter than the wooden ones – better for the farmer but worse for the owl. And the metal barns get much too hot in the summer for the baby owls. As fence rows are cut down to accommodate bigger agricultural machinery, the owls have lost both their man-made nesting sites and their natural nesting sites. Habitat loss is considered the major reason for their decline.

The rehab center’s owl has been there for 20 years and they are hoping for another 10. A well-cared for bird in captivity can have double the lifespan of a bird in the wild.

The next owl was a barred owl. This is the one that says “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” (At least that’s how the sound is described.) They can be found in a wet, wooded environment and are very common in our state. I’ve also heard this one frequently both at home and at Pokagon State Park. Barred owls are named that because of the striping – or barring – on their chest. They are generalists, meaning they will eat almost anything smaller than they are. They weigh about two pounds and consider any creature under a pound fair game. Generalists usually thrive whereas specialists are more susceptible to changes in their environment. Barred owls are especially fond of crawfish, and according to Leslie, if they eat enough of them their chest feathers take on a pinkish cast. A barred owl can swivel its head 270degrees. That’s a lot of pivot! Barred owls are related to spotted owls and where their territories overlap they can interbreed, resulting in “sparred owls.” But they occasionally also prey on spotted owls and because of that, they are not welcome out west.

The final owl guest was a great horned owl. The horns are really just tufts of feathers, not horns nor ears, but they give the owl a fierce look, which is appropriate because they are at the top of their food chain. They prey on barred owls, screech owls, rabbits, squirrels, skunks (most birds have no sense of smell), and smaller animals. They have even been known to take a fawn, a cat or even a bobcat! That’s why they are sometimes called the “tigers of the sky.” They can do this because can exert 300 pounds of pressure per square inch with their talons. Grow wore a leather glove for the other birds, but for the great horned owl she had a different glove with a layer of Kevlar sandwiched between two layers of leather.

Unfortunately, lab results show that one out of four owls have mouse or rat poison in their systems, which will eventually cause their demise. Use mousetraps instead of poison if possible, for the good of the owls. Another hazard with which owls often fight a losing battle is barbed wire fences. Any old barbed wire fencing not being used should be taken down and given to a recycling center. An owl swooping down after prey doesn’t notice the fence and can get impaled in it with deadly results.

Grow summed up her philosophy about bringing these owls to schools and programs throughout the state simply as “People can’t care about what they don’t know about.” And people need to care about these owls and the other birds of prey, because changes we make in their environment can be matters of life or death for the birds.