Awesome Owls — September - October 1992

by Karen Van Norman

saw-whet owl

What animal catches so many mice it's called "feathered mousetrap"? What animal can swoop down from a tree and grab a small running animal even when the night is pitch black?

Owls can. With big eyes and nighttime habits, they seem mysterious. You can learn more about them by searching for clues. You can listen for their spooky hoots and screeches. And you can look for owl "pellets" that show what an owl had for dinner.

Owls have special eyes, wings, and feet to help them hunt. Because owls hunt very well, they're able to live in forests, deserts, and prairies all over the world.

An owl uses its ears and eyes to find and catch small animals. Its face is shaped like a satellite dish to collect sounds and help it hear.

An owl's big eyes let in a lot of light so it can see better in the dark than we can.

Most birds have eyes on the sides of their head, but an owl's eyes point straight ahead like ours to help it judge distance.

Owls catch and grip their food with strong feet that have sharp, hooked claws.

Owl Habitat

Like other animals, owls need food, water, shelter, and space to live. These things are called "habitat." But good habitat for one kind of owl can be very different from habitat for a different owl. Here are common habitats in Minnesota and owls you might see there - if you're lucky.

 

Prairies and Farmland

Screech owl
Burrowing owl
Short-eared owl
Barn owl
Great horned owl
Snowy owl (winter only)

Southern Hardwood Forests

Screech owl
Long-eared owl
Barred owl
Great horned owl

Northern Forests

Saw-whet owl
Boreal owl
Long-eared owl
Hawk owl
Barred owl
Great horned owl
Snowy owl (winter only)

Northern Swamps

Boreal owl
Hawk owl
Short-eared owl
Great gray owl
Great horned owl

 

Be an Owl Detective

When owls eat an animal, they eat everything, so hours later they cough up "pellets" of bones and fur or feathers. When you go for a walk in the woods, keep your eyes open for owl pellets under trees.

To find out what an owl has eaten look for clues in a pellet. Pick the pellet apart to separate fur, feathers, and bones. You can easily recognize a bird skull because it has no teeth. Often the jaws of a mammal skull are undamaged, and you can see the size, shape, and arrangement of the teeth. Biologists study these jaws, beaks, and bones to learn what owls eat.

great horned owl

Owl Prowls

Take a walk some night when the moon is full. Listen for owls. If you're lucky, you might hear an owl hoot or even see one glide overhead.

Do you want to take an owl prowl? Call a nearby nature center or state park and ask if they have night hikes or owl programs. To learn more about owls, visit the Raptor Center in St. Paul and the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.

Karen Van Norman, who wrote this story, works for the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program.

A complete copy of the article can be found in the September-October 1992 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.