This article is about birds of the night; owls. These are birds that are active when most other birds are sleeping. Owls have always been of particular interest to me. As a boy, growing up in northwest Iowa, I was interested in all birds but particularly in owls.
I saw just two species of owls when I was young. I saw a screech owl now and then in a tree in the neighborhood where I lived or along the street as my brother and I were walking home from a movie after dark. We often heard a screech owl before we saw it, a tremulous whistle, not a screech at all.
Whenever I heard one I looked for it which made me late getting home and worried my mother. The other owl I saw when I was young was a great horned. I didn’t see great horned owls in town but in the woods along the river which ran through town, not far from my home. Walking along the river was a favorite activity of mine. Sometimes I spotted a great horned perched in a tree along the river but more often I was led to a great horned owl by crows.
Whenever a crow sees an owl it calls loudly and is joined promptly by all the other crows in the area. Together they circle over the owl, calling and diving at it. Like finding a screech owl I also found a great horned owls occasionally by hearing one, then going toward the call, going slowly, cautiously, so I wouldn’t flush the owl. The call of a great horned owl is five hoots, hoo hoo-hoo hoo-hoo.
All owls have big eyes, large heads and appear not to have any neck. But every owl has a neck, a swivel really, with which it can turn its head more than one hundred eighty degrees.
Screech and great horned were the only species of owls I saw when I was young. But I read about other species of owls, as I read about all birds, and, of course, I looked at pictures.
Before I read about owls and learned that there are many species I thought, naturally, that the screech was the smallest owl and the great horned was the biggest. But there are actually species that are smaller than the screech owl, two of them, saw-whet and elf owl, and one that is bigger than the great horned owl, the great gray owl. Other species of owl are barn, barred, long-eared, short-eared, burrowing, spotted, flammulated and snowy.
I’ve seen saw-whet owls since I moved out of Iowa, two of them, both in Indiana my present home. I’ve seen other owls as well, barn owl, barred owl, long-eared owl, short-eared, burrowing and snowy.
I haven’t seen a screech owl in years but I see and hear great horned owls and barred owls, not often but every now and then. I also have people tell me they saw an owl, or they heard one. When they say they heard one I ask them if they counted the hoots. Five hoots, of course, is a great horned but the barred owl is an eight hooter, hoo-hoo hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-aah.
The barn owl is a screamer. Its call is described often as like the cry of a person in intense pain. A barn owl called outside our bedroom window once when my wife and I were in bed. My wife had never heard a barn owl. She sat up, grabbed my arm and practically screamed at me, “Neil, someone’s hurt outside! Go help them!” I got up, pulled on my pants, went out, saw and flushed a barn owl.
Two species of owl, snowy and great gray, are actually night and day birds. They’re birds of the far north where there is no night in summer.