Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 267-A   April 29, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The owls, of all our native birds, are least understood. Most kinds remain hidden, motionless and silent during the day and hunt only at night or in the dim twilight of morning and evening. Only a few, like our common Short-eared Owl and those big owls of the far north -- the Snowy Owl, the Great Gray Owl and the Hawk Owl -- habitually hunt in daytime. Because an owl' s feathers are peculiarly soft and fluffy, it flies as silently as a passing shadow, swoops upon its prey unheard, and its Indian name was "hush-wing".

Since ancient times there have been many superstitions and legends about these birds. They have been regarded as the companions of sorcerers, witches, ghosts, hobgoblins and Satan himself. Their weird nocturnal hootings, gobblings and screams were and are believed to predict death, illness or disaster. Even today, in our southern states, the plaintive quavering cry of the Little Screech Owl -- which they call the "Shivering" Owl -- will cause some people to get out of bed and turn over their left shoe; others to throw a nail or other iron object into the fire. To the Greeks and Romans, the owl was a symbol of wisdom and was the companion of their goddess of wisdom.

It is not true that owls are "blind" in daytime. They see very well but most kinds see better at dusk because their eyes, adapted for night hunting, are so sensitive to light that the iris almost closes in strong light. It is supposed that they are particularly sensitive to green, yellow, orange, red, and possibly even to infrared rays which are invisible to us. In addition, like the hawk, the eye of an owl can be instantly and sharply focused to see either near or far and it is probably the most efficient organ of vision in the world. As with us humans, and unlike other birds, an owl has both eyes set in the front of its skull but they are immovable and cannot be rolled from side to side. This gives the bird's face an uncanny menacing staring expression. However, it can rotate its head almost 180 degrees to the right or left, so that it can stare back over either shoulder, and many a small boy has unsuccessfully tried to make an owl "twist its head off" by walking around it.

Owls have another peculiarity. Like hawks, they swallow their prey whole or in large pieces without removing the fur, feathers or bones. These indigestible portions are rolled up by the stomach into compact pellets and ejected from the mouth. The location of an owl' s den or roost is frequently betrayed by a pile of these pellets beneath it. They are clean and dry, do not smell, and can be taken apart to discover what the bird has been eating. Such examination will show that, contrary to common belief, nearly all owls are valuable to mankind. Some, like the Burrowing Owl and the Tiny Elk Owl of the southwest, feed mostly on insects. The Barn Owl, the Barred Owl, the Saw-whet Owl, the Screech Owl -- indeed, most other kinds -- prey largely on mice, rats, ground squirrels, gophers and other rodents.

An exception is the Great Horned Owl. This powerful bloodthirsty "Tiger of the Air" frequently becomes a serious predator on poultry, game birds and waterfowl. It is the only owl not protected in Illinois and most states. Nevertheless, because of the harmful mammals it eats, it does more good than bad.

Some people get as crazy as a Hoot Owl? Is that wise?

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