, Gloucester, MA

August 1, 2013

Outdoors: Wide variety of owls patrol the North Shore

Dave Sartwell

---- — We were out on the beach just getting set up for a night of striper fishing. The twilight of the evening was slowly darkening into blackness as a haunting sound came drifting over the water from an island in the marsh.

“Who whoooo. Who whoooo.”

Seconds later we watched as an owl ghosted out of a spruce tree, his flapping wings making no noise, his head cast downward as he watched his unsuspecting prey beneath. As he neared the killing spot, he tilted his body back just a little and reached down with outstretched claws. Just as he clamped down on the back of the mole, his body rocked forward and with two beats of his wings he was up into the air, supper in hand.

All over the North Shore there are a wide variety of owls that patrol the night sky looking for bugs, snakes, rodents, birds and fish to feed themselves and their young. Although not many people see them, it is surprising how many there are that live here.

Owls can be found in every continent except Antarctica. The tiniest are the elf owls that weigh in at about an ounce and are at most 5 inches tall. The largest are the Great Gray, the Blackiston Fish Owl, and the Eurasian Eagle-Owl. These buggers can get to weigh as much as ten pounds and have a wing span of 61/2 feet!

In Massachusetts there are seven types of owls that live and breed here. They are the Great Horned, Barred, Eastern Screech, Northern Saw-whet long-eared, Barn, and Short-eared. There are four more types that live here from time-to-time: the Snowy, Boreal, Great Gray, and Northern Hawk.

The anatomy of the owl allows it to hunt efficiently in low-light conditions. For the most part it is quiet during the day, hiding in cavity in a tree or hunkered in close to the trunk shielded by limbs and foliage. But as the night descends, the owl goes on the hunt. To do this it needs both eye-sight and hearing that will guide it to its prey.

The ears of an owl are really different. They have asymmetrical ear placements on their head. As humans both of our ears are about the same distance from the corners of our eyes. In an owl they are offset a bit. When looking directly at the source, the sound reaches the different ears at a split second difference in time allowing the owl to really pinpoint it’s location. In the barn owl, for example, one ear is slightly higher on the head as well. This allows for up and down location quickly. The feathers around the ears also help. They form little concaves that direct the sound to the ears.

The eyes also are specially designed for the night. Their eyes are much larger in their proportion to skull size than most birds. The structure of their eye is tubular in shape which does not allow the eye to rotate like ours. As a result, they have to turn their head rather than roll their eyes. Because of this, an owl can turn his head almost 270 degrees without moving it’s body. They are far-sighted and do not see very well when objects are very close (but then, how much reading can you do in the dark!)

Their talons are unique as well. They have two toes facing forward and two facing back. In fact, one of the backward toes can face forward when it is flying due to a flexible joint. These talons can grip with incredible strength. They are used to not only pick up their prey, but they are used to hold the bird on a perch. They help to knead the body of their prey to crush it so it can be eaten easily.

The downward curving short beak of the owl serves two purposes. First, it has very sharp edges that allow the owl to tear apart it’s prey. And secondly, the shape of the beak directs sounds to the ears without deflecting any of it.

The owl can be incredibly quiet in flight. this is due to the serrated edges of it’s feathers When they come swooping in there are no airwhumps or whooshes. There is just silence.

If you want to hear them, or if you are lucky, see them, take a walk around the Babson Reservoir or through Dogtown just as evening drops. Walk slowly and quietly, remembering that silent and listen have the same letters. Also contact the Mass Audubon Society at 781-259-9500 as they hold regular owl walks.