By Don Corrigan
Owls sport reputations for being wise and old. However, sensational internet stories and tabloid TV are portraying these feathered fellows as dangerous. Wise, old owls appear to be in attack mode.
A hiker in Alaska was recently dive bombed by a great-horned owl armed with sharp talons. Last year, attacks took place from Washington state to Georgia. Incidents in Texas prompted a “When Owls Attack” advisory.
“Owls can and do attack,” said Shelly Colatskie of Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center in Kirkwood. “If you get too close to their nests, especially when they have young, they will swoop down on you.
“An owl coming at you with their talons can be scary,” added Colatskie. “But the truth is we have not had calls here about problem owls. We get more calls about problem skunks and deer, and bats for sure.”
In Midland, Texas, humans were advised to wear protective gear when passing by nesting adult owls and their owlets. Leather jackets and baseball helmets were suggested as items for owl-proofing.
Do Webster-Kirkwood residents need to owl-proof? After all, owl nests have been spotted in forested stretches at Emmenegger, Blackburn, Powder Valley and other park areas.
An owl family has even taken up residence in a tree on the front lawn of Webster University. The phenomenon has photographers gawking from top floor windows at 470 East Lockwood Avenue.
“People should have a healthy respect for owls and all raptors. They all can have sharp talons to rip apart prey,” said Daniel Cone, assistant curator and general manager of the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park.
“Owls’ nests are not always easy to see. People can come upon them unexpectedly and everyone gets startled,” said Cone. “Just keep moving, but don’t run, and there will be no reason to be scared.”
Owl Prowls Abound
Organized hikes in search of owls, called “owl prowls,” are growing in popularity. These events take place at Forest Park, Powder Valley, the World Bird Sanctuary and more.
“People want to see owls,” said Colatskie of Powder Valley. “They want to know where all the hooting is coming from. Owls are a little creepy. They can turn their heads 270 degrees, which makes them an object of curiosity.
“Our last owl prowl was in late November,” said Colatskie. “It was totally booked. Unfortunately, we did not have a lot of success finding owls.”
Cone said the next Owl Prowl at World Bird Sanctuary in March is totally booked. He said their hikers will always see owls because there are 37 captive owls exhibited on site.
“We even arrange for our captive birds to fly between trainers above the hikers,” said Cone. “So, no one goes away disappointed on World Bird Sanctuary prowls.”
According to Cone, ubiquitous owl hoots give hint that the creatures are present in far greater numbers than visible to the naked eye. Especially plentiful in this area are great-horned owls and barred owls.
“Hoots are very distinctive by species,” said Cone. “Hoots also can be distinctive by gender, especially with great-horned owls and barred owls. Males have deep-throated hoots, while the females are very high-pitched.”
Hooting happens year-round. However, owl hoots are most plentiful during mating season in December and January.
“A major function of hooting is territorial,” said Colatskie. “Owls are letting other birds know that ‘this is my turf.’ They will do it when other birds get too close, and birds know to stay away from predator owls.”
Cone said owls, with their excellent hunting skills and extremely sharp talons, are at “the apex of the food chain” among birds. They attack other birds; no birds attack them.
Owls v. Humans
Owls have a lot more to fear from humans, than humans have to fear from owls. The World Bird Sanctuary specializes in treating injured fowl and works to rehabilitate birds for a return to the wild after treatment.
“We treat more than 650 bird patients annually and by far the overwhelming number of them are owls,” said Cone. “The injuries are usually collision-related. They get hit on the roads chasing a squirrel or a mouse.
“Owls are great hunters and they get hyper-fixated on their prey,” explained Cone. “They are simply unaware that a car or a truck is coming at them.”
Two other causes of owl injuries and sickness are rodent poisons and lead poisoning from ammunition. Rodent poisoning will slow down mice, rather than killing them. Owls will then pick up an easy, but deadly meal.
“We get birds in here all the time just horribly affected by rodenticides and by lead in the environment,” said Cone. “Some hunters are switching to copper bullets, but there is still plenty of lead in the environment.”
Cone said the “release rate” for birds treated by World Bird Sanctuary is about 40%, which means that 40% can be released back into the wild after treatment. If owls are no longer able to hunt because of injuries, they will not be let back into the outdoors.
Some of these birds can be kept on site for exhibiting. In addition, owls that are not native to the Midwest are captive and kept for on-site exhibiting.
“We have three spectacled owls from Central and South America that have great personalities and are very popular,” said Cone. “They are captive-raised, so they are calm around humans and very adorable.
“Unfortunately, they are an endangered species because they are losing their habitat,” said Cone. “Animals like the spectacled owls are losing their rainforest homes in places like the Amazon to human development.”
Owls may occasionally give humans a scare, but perhaps it’s time for humans to give a hoot about endangered owls.
Thanks to the World Bird Sanctuary, MDC, Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center and Webster University for lots of wise commentary and photos about our old friends, the owls. They don’t mean us any harm, unless we get too close for their comfort.