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Marin IJ Articles

Owls, a pretty face with a killer instinct

  • Marie Narlock
  • Owls live dual lives: by day they primp and rest; at night they go on killing sprees.

    These iconic birds greet each day with meticulous preening and stretching, using razor-sharp talons to comb feathers and spiffing up talons with powerful beaks. This routine continues for hours, the venerable bird unwilling to leave its roost until every step is complete.

    Once its spa treatments are done, it’s time to rest.

    Often owls lollygag solo, dozing in hollow trees till sundown. During mating season, owls living in rodent-rich locales have more free time available because the hunting is so effortless. Their response? More sex! Some males, normally monogamous, may mate with as many as three females; females may have a boyfriend on the side.

    Nighttime means dinnertime. Waiting, watching, swooping in for the kill: owls have formidable built-in weaponry.

    Like binoculars, its glowing eyes are permanently fixed, unable to glance sideways but with depth perception and strength to spot a mouse half a mile away. To look side to side, an owl swivels its head to 270 degrees, relying on a blood-pooling system for brain and eyes to function when neck movement cuts off circulation. Owl eyes have three eyelids: top, bottom and a third transparent membrane that covers eyes to prevent injury when nabbing prey or feeding owlets. Eye color varies, an evolutionary trait that helps owls disappear: orange-eyed owls hunt dawn and dusk, while dark-eyed owls prefer the dead of night.

    Ears are often asymmetrical, one higher and larger than the other, allowing an uncanny ability to pinpoint sounds in 3-D — a system so foolproof that an owl on the prowl can locate prey by sound alone — handy when careening through the forest on a moonless night.

    But it’s not only supernatural eyes and ears that set owls apart. It’s their stealth, camouflaged strikes. Owl feathers are velvety, tipped with fine fringe that deadens the sound of flapping wings. Despite wing spans 4 or 5 feet across, these nocturnal stalkers fly silently. Feathers also match surroundings: owls in woodlands are brown, those near rocky outcrops grey, and owls in snowy areas white.

    Owls snatch prey on land, water, and even underground, clasping victims with fierce talons, continuing in flight, and transferring food to beak before swallowing it whole and regurgitating the indigestible remains 10 hours later. Owls have no sense of smell (who needs it with those eyes and ears?). The crushing power of the beak is reserved for killing prey and fending off predators.

    Is it any wonder that other birds fear owls? Or that they’re often considered the smartest of all birds? Or are seen as wise or ominous? It is their inherent hunting ability that makes owls so compelling — and so valuable in farms and gardens throughout Marin County.

    “Owls are our allies,” says Alex Godbe, program director of WildCare’s Hungry Owl Project. “A family of barn owls can consume 3,000 or more rodents over a four month breeding cycle — and barn owls can have two clutches of owlets a year.”

    Marin’s most commonly seen owls are the great horned owl, its mesmerizing eyes burning amber at dusk, and the barn owl, its white heart-shaped face floating through open field and farmland like an apparition. The western screech owl is another familiar feathery face, often seen tucked into tree cavities.

    Attracting these exquisite creatures is easy. If you have mice, rats, moles, voles or gophers in your area, many owls will take up residence in a simple nesting box you can build yourself or get from The Hungry Owl Project at hungryowl.org.

    In the meantime, use nontoxic methods to control insects and rodents, and avoid glue traps. Relying on owls to manage your neighborhood rodent population is smart, sustainable and inexpensive. We’re fortunate to have healthy owl populations in Marin, and it’s up to all of us to keep it that way.