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owl

owl, common name for nocturnal birds of prey found on all continents. Owls superficially resemble short-necked hawks, except that their eyes are directed forward and are surrounded by disks of radiating feathers. This peculiarity lends them an appearance of studious intelligence, and the owl has long been used as a symbol of wisdom. Although owls are able to see in daylight, their eyes are especially adapted to seeing in partial darkness, and most owls spend the day sleeping in caves, hollow trees, and other secluded places. Their plumage is so soft and fluffy that they are almost noiseless in flight. The order (Strigiformes) of owls is divided into two families; the barn owls (family Tytonidae), with heart-shaped faces, are one, and the typical owls (family Strigidae) compose the other. Owls feed on rodents, toads and frogs, insects, and small birds; like the hawks, they regurgitate pellets of indigestible matter. The elf and saw-whet owls of the SW United States and the pygmy owl of the Old World are only 6 in. (15 cm) long, while the eagle owl of Eurasia, the hawk owl of Australia, the great horned owl of North America (Bubo virginianus), and the snowy and great gray owls of the Arctic reach 2 ft (61 cm) with wingspreads of 4 to 5 ft (1.2 to 1.5 m). Many owls usurp the deserted nests of other birds, especially hawks; the burrowing owl of the New World lives in deserted prairie-dog burrows or digs its own. The barred owl has a familiar four-hoot call; the screech owl, misnamed for a similar European species, has a mournful descending cry. The long-eared owl is found in North America; the short-eared owl is ubiquitous. The tawny owl is common in England. Owls are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Strigiformes, families Tytonidae and Strigidae.

See J. A. Burton, ed., Owls of the World (1974), D. Morris, Owl (2009), and M. Taylor, Owls (2012).

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owl

owl / oul/ • n. a nocturnal bird of prey (order Strigiformes) with large forward-facing eyes surrounded by facial disks, a hooked beak, and typically a loud call. Two families: Strigidae ( typical owls, such as saw-whet owls and the snowy owl) and Tytonidae ( barn owls and their relatives).

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owl

owl Bird found worldwide, except at extreme latitudes. Owls have round heads, hooked bills, large eyes, and long, curved talons. Soundless in flight, most are nocturnal and feed on small birds and mammals. The order (Strigiformes) is divided into two families: barn owls (Tytonidae) and typical owls (Strigidae).

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owl

owl OE. ūle = MLG., MDu. ūle, Du. uil, ON. ugla :- Gmc. *uwwalōn, parallel with *uwwilōn, repr. by OHG. úwila (MHG. iule, G. eule). For the imit. orig. cf. L. ulula, perh. f. vb. ululāre howl.
Hence owlet (-ET) XVI.

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owl

owl the owl is taken as a symbol of wisdom (and was the emblem of Athene), but if a person is described as looking owlish it may imply that their solemn appearance is not matched by an inward intelligence or alertness.

See also stuffed owl.

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owls

owls
1. See STRIGIDAE; STRIGIFORMES.

2. (barn owls, bay owls) See TYTONIDAE.

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owl

owlafoul, befoul, cowl, foul, fowl, growl, howl, jowl, owl, prowl, Rabaul, scowl, yowl •gamefowl • peafowl • wildfowl •moorfowl • waterfowl

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Owl

OWL

OWL , bird belonging to the family Strigidae. Because of the strange appearance of species of the owl, some of their conspecies were called kippuf, that is, resembling a kof ("ape"). It was also said that "their eyes are directed forward like those of human beings" and that "they have jaws like those of human beings" (Nid. 23a). They were regarded as an evil omen, so that although "all kinds of birds are a good sign in a dream," species of owls are not (Ber. 57b). Most of them utter a hooting cry like a groan, and as they inhabit ruins, they sound as though mourning over the devastation, and hence symbolize in the Bible destruction and desolation. The majority of them are included in the Pentateuch among the birds prohibited as food, and even those not mentioned there are unclean according to the principle that a bird "is unclean if (when perched on a cord stretched for it) it divides its toes evenly, two on each side" (Ḥul. 65a; cf. Ḥul. 3:6). The owl's toes, divided into two in front and two behind, assist it in seizing its prey.

The Bible contains at least 11 names of owls. Of these the tinshemet, ka'at, kos, yanshuf, shalakh, and bat ya'anah are mentioned in the lists of unclean birds in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. For the biblical names of owls the following identifications have been suggested.

(1) The tinshemet (Lev. 11:18; Deut. 14:16; jps, "horned owl"; av, "swan") is the barn screech owl (Tyto alba), its Hebrew name (which occurs also in Lev. 11:30 as that of an unclean creeping thing, but there refers to the *chameleon) being derived from נשם ("to breathe") on account of its heavy breathing. Because of its odd appearance it was regarded as "the strangest (or "the most repulsive") of birds" (Ḥul. 63a).

(2) The ka'at (Lev. 11:18; Deut. 14:17; jps, av, "pelican") is mentioned among the birds that inhabit ruined places (Isa. 34:11; Zech. 2:14). Referring to his sighing and emaciated body by reason of his suffering, the psalmist (Ps. 102:6–7) compares himself to "a ka'at of the wilderness." Its Hebrew name denotes vomiting (meki) in a reference apparently to the fact that, as do other owls, it regurgitates the bones of its prey. In desert regions there occurs a species of owl – the Athene noctua saharae owl – that fits in with the biblical descriptions of the ka'at.

(3) The kos (Lev. 11:17; Deut. 14:16; jps, av, "little owl"), that occurs together with ka'at, of which it is a conspecies, in Psalms (102:7), is probably the little owl (Athene noctua glaux), its Hebrew name being onomatopoeic. It has no "ears," that is, no crest of feathers. Symbolizing, as it did, wisdom to the ancient Greeks because of its large wide-open eyes, it appeared on the coins of Athens.

(4) The yanshuf (Lev. 11:17; Deut. 14:16; jps, av, "great owl"), depicted by Isaiah (34:11) as inhabiting devastated Edom together with the ka'at, has been identified with the long-eared owl (Asio otus), its Hebrew name being connected with neshef ("night") or with neshifah ("hooting"). It is found in winter in the north of Israel.

(5) The shalakh (Lev. 11:17; Deut. 14:17; jps, av, "cormorant") which, according to the Talmud, "catches fish out of the sea" (Ḥul. 63a), has been identified with the fish owl (Ketupazeylonensis), the only owl in Israel that feeds on fish. It is found near Lake Kinneret.

(6) The bat ya'anah (Lev. 11:16; Deut. 14:15; jps, "ostrich," av, "owl") is, according to the ancient translations, the *ostrich, which however lives in the open desert and which rarely utters a cry, whereas the bat ya'anah is described as inhabiting desolate places (Isa. 34:13) and as emitting a mournful cry (Micah 1:8). For these reasons it has been identified with one of the species of owl that utters a cry when calling to one other (ya'anah is apparently derived from anah (ענה), "to answer"), this being characteristic of three strains of the species Bubo bubo, one of which, the dark desert eagle owl (Bubo b. ascalaphus), has been identified with the biblical bat ya'anah.

(7) The tannim has been identified with the second, light-colored strain of the previous species – with the Bubo b. desertorum. It lives in the desert and in ruins and emits a sighing cry, the name tannim being derived from tanah (תנה; "to weep"). Since it occurs together with the bat ya'anah among birds in the above passages, it is difficult to accept the customary modern identification of tannim as *jackal.

(8) The o'ah (jps, "ferret"; av, "doleful creature"), mentioned with the bat ya'anah as inhabiting ruined places (Isa. 13:21), has been identified with the third strain of the above species – the Palestinian eagle owl (Bubo b. aharonii), its name being onomatopoeic. The largest of the owls, it is found in the Jordan Valley, and feeds on hares and rats, reptiles and birds.

(9) The kippod (jps, av, "bittern") and the kippoz (jps, "arrowsnake," av, "great owl") are mentioned in the account of the destruction of Edom, where various birds lived and nested (Isa. 34:11, 15). Associated as its name is with the meaning of rolling oneself up into a ball, the kippod has been identified with the short-eared owl (Asio flamneus) which adopts a rotund posture and lives near swamps and in ruined places, and hence Isaiah (14:23) prophesies that Babylonia would be made into "a possession for the kippod and pools of water." The hedgehog is also called kippod or koppad in the Mishnah (Shab. 5:4), because it rolls itself up into a ball.

(10) The lilit (jps, "night monster," av, "screech owl"), which also occurs in Isaiah's prophecy about Edom (34:14), refers to a species of bird (cf. Nid. 24b), the word, connected with laylah ("night"), denoting a nocturnal bird, perhaps the tawny owl (Strix aluco). In the aggadah it is the name of a night-demon (see *Lilith).

The sa'ir, mentioned alongside the lilit, is apparently also a species of owl. This word is now applied to the smallest of the owls, the Otus scopus. Another view holds that it refers to a species of demon (cf. Lev. 17; II Chron. 11:15).

bibliography:

Lewysohn, Zool, 162ff.; R. Meinertzhagen, Birds of Arabia (1954), 318f.; J. Margolin, Zo'ologyah, 2 (1959), 275; F.S. Bodenheimer, Animal and Man in Bible Lands (1960), 54, 117f., 128; J. Feliks, The Animal World of the Bible (1962), 72–81; M. Dor, Leksikon Zoologi (1965), Eng. index.

[Jehuda Feliks]

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Owls

OWLS

OWLS . As a creature of two realms, the owl is a multivalent symbol admitting of both benevolent and malevolent interpretations. Like most birds, owls represent higher states of being (angels, spirits, supernatural aid, and wisdom), while their nocturnal nature and ominous hoot ally them with the instinctual world of matter, darkness, death, and blind ignorance. In a series of etchings he called Los caprichos, the Spanish painter Goya depicted owls as the dark forces of the irrational.

For many early peoples, owls were associated with the baleful, devouring nature of the Great Mother, and their sinister aspect as birds of ill omen prevailed over their benign connotations. In the Egyptian system of hieroglyphs, owls signify night, death, the sun that has sunk into darkness; in the Hindu tradition, they represent the soul and Yama, god of the dead; and in China, images of owls carved on funeral urns symbolize death. The owl was an attribute of the god of darkness for the Etruscans, a chthonic sign for the Celts, who called it the "corpse bird," and the taboo animal of early metallurgists. In the pagan religion of the Abyssinian Hamites, owls were sacred and were believed to embody the souls of those who had died unavenged.

Because of the owl's association with the otherworld and its mysteries, the bird was thought to be cognizant of future events and became an emblem of wisdom. Owls were regarded as auspicious in classical Greece, where they were sacred to Pallas Athena, the goddess of divine knowledge, human wisdom, and the arts; they were depicted on vases, coins, and monuments as her emblem and companion. A trace of totemism is detected in one of her epithets, Glaucopis ("owl"), which suggests that at one time the bird had been worshiped as a god and only later became an attribute of the goddess. The Romans allied the owl to Athena's counterpart Minerva, and also believed that it augured death. The funereal screech owl was anathema to the Romans, and its appearance at public auspices was deemed unpropitious. In Vergil's Aeneid, when Dido contemplates death upon learning that Aeneas is to abandon her, she hears the "deathly lamentations" of an owl. And Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth say "I heard the owl scream" when Duncan is murdered.

In Judaism the owl symbolizes blindness, and according to the Talmud it is an ill omen in dreams. The Hebrew scriptures classify owls among the unclean birds, and when God declares his vengeance against Zion, he condemns it to be "a habitation of dragons and a court for owls" (Is. 34:14). Job, in his despair, cries that he is "a companion to owls" (Jb. 30:29).

Throughout Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, owls were a sign of the darkness that prevailed before the advent of Christ and a symbol of those Jews who elected to dwell therein instead of in the light of the gospel. As a bird that shuns the light, the owl was equated with Satan, Prince of Darkness, who lures people into sin as the owl tricks birds into snares. A symbol of solitude when depicted with hermits at prayer, the owl denotes wisdom when it is shown at the side of Saint Jerome. Scenes of the crucifixion sometimes show the owl with Christ, whose sacrifice brought light to those in darkness.

Owls are considered the agents of magic among many peoples. Siberian and Inuit (Eskimo) shamans regard them as helping spirits, a source of powerful aid and guidance, and wear their feathers on caps and collars. Tatar shamans try to assume the bird's shape, and the Buriats keep an owl or hang up its skin to ward off evil spirits. The Ainu look on the owl as a deity. In one Samoan village the people believe that the owl incarnates their god. A malevolent pre-Columbian Aztec god is represented with a screech owl on his head.

Among certain American Indian tribes, it was believed that God's power was transmitted to the shaman through owls. The Kiowa thought that the medicine man became an owl after death, and Creek priests bore a stuffed owl as their insignia. Owl dances were performed as a magical rite, and in the Medicine Pipe Dance of the Crow tribes, the pipe stem was decorated with owl and woodpecker feathers to symbolize night and day. For some tribes the owl represented a psychopomp: The Ojibwa called the bridge over which the dead passed the "owl bridge," and the Pima believed that owl feathers facilitated the soul's flight to the world beyond.

Bibliography

Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 2. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New Haven, Conn., 1955. The owl as a totemic animal. Basing his concept of totemism on the mythically experienced unity and equivalence of human and animal, the author accounts for totemism as a belief that the clan was not merely descended from the animal but united with it in a magical context of the energy flowing between them.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964). Rev. & enl. ed. Reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1970. Owls as powerful guardians and helping spirits, bearers of instructions to sorcerers and shamans, symbolic of their power of flight.

Ovid. Metamorphoses, vol. 2. Translated by Frank Justus Miller. New York, 1916. The association of owls with the dark aspects of the goddesses of the underworld and their evocation of primitive fears.

New Sources

Cenzanto, Elena, and Fabio Santopietro. Owls: Art, Legend, History. Translated by Graham Fawcett. Boston, 1991.

Holmgren, Virginia. Owls in Folklore and Natural History. Santa Barbara, Calif., 1988.

Weinstein, Krystyna. The Owl in Art, Myth, and Legend. New York, 1991.

Ann Dunnigan (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Owls

Owls

Barn owls

Typical owls

Importance of owls

Resources

Owls comprise two closely related families in the avian order Strigiformes: the barn owls (Tytonidae) and the typical owls (Strigidae). Owls are relatively large birds, with a big head and short neck, a hooked beak, talons adapted to seizing prey, and soft, dense plumage adapted for swift yet almost silent flight. Owls have large eyes located on the front of their face but almost fixed in their socket, so that the entire head must be rotated or bobbed for the gaze to be shifted and for distance to be visually gauged.

Owls have excellent hearing and extremely large ears, although these are covered by feathers and not readily seen. The ears are placed asymmetrically on the head to aid in detecting the location of distant, weakly noisy prey. The sense of hearing is probably also aided by the facial disk of many owls, which helps to focus sound waves onto the ears. The sense of hearing of owls is so acute that the nocturnally hunting species

can accurately strike their prey in total darkness, following the squeaks and rustling noises created by a small mammal.

The sex of an owl is not easy to distinguish, although typically females are larger than males. Owls begin to incubate their eggs as they are laid, which means that hatching is sequential and different-sized young are in the nest at the same time. During years in which prey is relatively abundant, all of the young will have enough to eat and may survive. In leaner years, however, only the largest young will be fed adequately.

Most owls are nocturnal predators, feeding on small mammals and birds, but sometimes also on small reptiles, frogs, larger insects, and earthworms. A few specialized owls feed on fish. Owls are known to change their food preference, depending on local or seasonal availability of prey. Most owls do not digest the fur, feathers, or bones of their prey. They regurgitate these items as pellets, which can be collected at roosts and examined to learn about the feeding habits of the owl.

Barn owls

The barn owls are a distinctive-looking group, with a characteristic facial disk of stiff, white feathers, dark eyes, long legs, and other features that distinguish them from typical owls. All barn owls are nocturnal predators, mostly of small mammals. There are 16 species of barn owls (genus Tyto ) and one species of closely related grass owl (genus Phodilus ).

The most familiar species is the barn owl (Tyto alba ). The barn owl is one of the most widely distributed species of bird, occurring on all continents but Antarctica, and with about 30 races described, many of which are endemic to particular oceanic islands. The barn owl is the only representative of this family in the Americas, occurring uncommonly through most of the United States and in much of Central and South America. The barn owl roosts in cavities in trees and in barns and abandoned buildings, and it hunts at dusk and at night over marshes, prairies, fields, and farmyards.

Typical owls

There are about 180 species of typical owls. Most species are brownish colored with dark streaks and other patterns, which helps these birds blend into the environment when roosting in a tree or flying in dim light. Most typical owls have distinct facial disks. Many species have feathered ear tufts, which are important for determining another owls silhouette and are used in species recognition. Also important for recognition are the distinctive hoots and other calls of these birds. Most typical owls have a brilliant yellow iris, and they have excellent vision in dim light. These birds also have extraordinary hearing, which is important for detecting and capturing their prey.

Typical owls occur worldwide, in almost all habitats where their usual prey of small mammals, birds, lizards, snakes, and larger insects and other invertebrates can be found. Most species occur in forest, but others breed in desert, tundra, prairie, or savanna habitat. These birds are solitary nesters, and because they are high-level predators they maintain relatively large territories, generally hundreds of hectares in area. Territories are established mostly using species-specific vocalizations, although more direct conflicts may sometimes occur. Northern species of owls are migratory, moving south as deepening snow makes it difficult for them to find and catch small mammals.

Larger owls tend to eat bigger prey than do smaller owls. The eagle owl (Bubo bubo ) of northern Eurasia has a body up to 26 in (67 cm) long and weighs as much as 9 lb (4 kg) or more. It is a formidable predator that feeds on animals as large as ducks, hares, other birds of prey, foxes, and even small deer. In contrast, the tiny, 5 in (13 cm) elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi ) of the southwestern United States and western Mexico mostly eats insects and arachnids, including scorpions. Some species of owls are rather specialized feeders. The fish-owls of Africa and Asia, such as the tawny fish-owl (Ketupa flavipes ) of south China and Southeast Asia, mostly catch fish at or very near the water surface.

There are 17 species of typical owls breeding in North America. The largest species is the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus ), with a body length of about 20 in (50 cm). This is a widespread and relatively common species that occurs almost everywhere but the northern tundra, feeding on prey as large as hare, skunks, and porcupines. The smallest species of owl in North America is the previously mentioned elf owl.

The screech owl (Otus asio ) is a relatively familiar species in woodlands of temperate regions. This 8 in (20 cm) long species occurs in several color phases (gray, red, and brown), and it nests in cavities and sometimes in nest boxes.

The snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca ) breeds in the tundra of North America and Eurasia. However, this species wanders much farther to the south during winter, when the small mammals it eats are difficult to obtain in the Arctic. The snowy owl is a whitish-colored bird that nests on the ground, feeds during the day, and is relatively tame, often allowing people to approach rather closely.

The burrowing owl (Speotyto cunicularia ) is a species that inhabits grasslands and prairies in southwestern North America, southern Florida, and parts of Central and South America. This species hunts during the day, often hovering distinctively while foraging. In the prairies, these owls typically roost and nest in the burrows of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus ).

The spotted owl (Strix occidentalis ) is a rare species of coastal, usually old-growth forests of southwestern North America and parts of Mexico. The northern subspecies (S. o. caurina ) is listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Because the habitat of the spotted owl is being diminished by logging of the old-growth forests of Washington, Oregon, and California, plans have been developed for the longer-term protection of this bird. These plans require the protection of large tracts of old-growth, conifer-dominated forest to ensure that sufficient areas of suitable habitat are available to support a viable population of these owls.

Importance of owls

Owls that feed in agricultural areas provide benefits to humans by killing large numbers of small rodents which might otherwise eat crops in the field or in storage. Owls are also widely sought out by bird watchers, who highly value sightings of these elusive and mysterious predators. Bird watchers and other naturalists spend a great deal of money for transportation and birding paraphernalia to engage in their pursuit of owls and other species.

Owls are rarely viewed as pests. In rare instances, they may kill some gamebirds, such as grouse or pheasant, and some gamekeepers have killed owls and other birds of prey for this reason. However, owls are not true pests, and enlightened game managers no longer persecute these birds.

Owls are, however, threatened by other activities of humans. They are exposed to toxic chemicals in forestry and agriculture, and this has taken a toll on some species of owls. Burrowing owls, for example, have been poisoned by exposure to the insecticide carbofuran, which is used to control epidemic populations of grasshoppers in prairie agriculture.

More important, however, have been the effects of habitat loss on owls. Urban, industrial, and agricultural developments all degrade the habitat of most species of owls and other native species, causing large reductions in their populations and even their disappearance from many areas. In North America, this type of effect is best illustrated by the case of the spotted owl, which is threatened by logging of its habitat of old-growth conifer forest. In that particular case, the owls can only be protected by setting aside large areas of suitable habitat as ecological reserves. This strategy is costly for the forest industry, because large amounts of valuable timber become protected from exploitation. However, this must be done if spotted owls and their associated species are to sustain their populations in their natural habitat.

Resources

BOOKS

Burton, J.A., ed. Owls of the World. Their Evolution, Structure, and Ecology. London: Peter Lowe, 1992.

del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 5, Barn-owls to Hummingbirds. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1999.

Duncan, J.R. Owls of the World: Their Lives, Behavior and Survival. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books, 2003.

Forshaw, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Birds. 2nd ed. New York: Academic Press, 1998.

Hume, R. Owls of the World. Limpsfield, England: Dragons World, 1991.

König, K., F. Weick, and J.-H. Becking. Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Taylor, I. Barn Owls: Predator-Prey Relationships and Conservation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Voous, K.H. Owls of the Northern Hemisphere. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

Weinstein, K. The Owls in Art, Myth and Legend. New York: Crescent Books, 1998.

PERIODICALS

Warren, L. Great Gray Owls, Winged Silence.National Geographic 207 (February 2005): 7087.

Bill Freedman

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Owls

Owls

Owls comprise two closely related families in the avian order Strigiformes: the barn owls (Tytonidae) and the typical owls (Strigidae). Owls are relatively large birds , with a big head and short neck, a hooked beak, talons adapted to seizing prey , and soft, dense plumage adapted for swift yet almost silent flight. Owls have large eyes located on the front of their face but almost fixed in their socket, so that the entire head must be rotated or bobbed for the gaze to be shifted and for distance to be visually gauged.

Owls have excellent hearing and extremely large ears, although these are covered by feathers and not readily seen. The ears are placed asymmetrically on the head to aid in detecting the location of distant, weakly noisy prey. The sense of hearing is probably also aided by the facial disk of many owls, which helps to focus sound waves onto the ears. The sense of hearing of owls is so acute that the nocturnally hunting species can accurately strike their prey in total darkness, following the squeaks and rustling noises created by a small mammal.

The sex of an owl is not easy to distinguish, although typically females are larger than males. Owls begin to incubate their eggs as they are laid, which means that hatching is sequential and different-sized young are in the nest at the same time. During years in which prey is relatively abundant, all of the young will have enough to eat and may survive. In leaner years, however, only the largest young will be fed adequately.

Most owls are nocturnal predators, feeding on small mammals and birds, but sometimes also on small reptiles , frogs , larger insects , and earthworms. A few specialized owls feed on fish . Owls are known to change their food preference, depending on local or seasonal availability of prey. Most owls do not digest the fur, feathers, or bones of their prey. They regurgitate these items as pellets, which can be collected at roosts and examined to learn about the feeding habits of the owl.

Barn owls

The barn owls are a distinctive-looking group, with a characteristic facial disk of stiff, white feathers, dark eyes, long legs, and other features that distinguish them from typical owls. All barn owls are nocturnal predators, mostly of small mammals. There are nine species of barn owls (genus Tyto) and two species of closely related grass owls (genus Phodilus).

The most familiar species is the barn owl (Tyto alba). The barn owl is one of the most widely distributed species of bird, occurring on all continents but Antarctica , and with about 30 races described, many of which are endemic to particular oceanic islands. The barn owl is the only representative of this family in the Americas, occurring uncommonly through most of the United States and in much of Central and South America . The barn owl roosts in cavities in trees and in barns and abandoned buildings, and it hunts at dusk and at night over marshes, prairies, fields, and farmyards.


Typical owls

There are about 120 species of typical owls. Most species are brownish colored with dark streaks and other patterns, which helps these birds blend into the environment when roosting in a tree or flying in dim light. Most typical owls have distinct facial disks. Many species have feathered "ear" tufts, which are important for determining another owl's silhouette and are used in species recognition. Also important for recognition are the distinctive hoots and other calls of these birds. Most typical owls have a brilliant yellow iris, and they have excellent vision in dim light. These birds also have extraordinary hearing, which is important for detecting and capturing their prey.

Typical owls occur worldwide, in almost all habitats where their usual prey of small mammals, birds, lizards, snakes , and larger insects and other invertebrates can be found. Most species occur in forest, but others breed in desert , tundra , prairie , or savanna habitat. These birds are solitary nesters, and because they are high-level predators they maintain relatively large territories, generally hundreds of hectares in area. Territories are established mostly using species-specific vocalizations, although more direct conflicts may sometimes occur. Northern species of owls are migratory, moving south as deepening snow makes it difficult for them to find and catch small mammals.

Larger owls tend to eat bigger prey than do smaller owls. The eagle owl (Bubo bubo) of northern Eurasia has a body up to 26 in (67 cm) long and weighs as much as 9 lb (4 kg) or more. It is a formidable predator that feeds on animals as large as ducks , hares, other birds of prey , foxes, and even small deer . In contrast, the tiny, 5 in (13 cm) elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi) of the southwestern United States and western Mexico mostly eats insects and arachnids , including scorpions. Some species of owls are rather specialized feeders. The fish-owls of Africa and Asia , such as the tawny fish-owl (Ketupa flavipes) of south China and southeast Asia, mostly catch fish at or very near the water surface.

There are 17 species of typical owls breeding in North America . The largest species is the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), with a body length of about 20 in (50 cm). This is a widespread and relatively common species that occurs almost everywhere but the northern tundra, feeding on prey as large as hare, skunks , and porcupines . The smallest species of owl in North America is the previously mentioned elf owl.

The screech owl (Otus asio) is a relatively familiar species in woodlands of temperate regions. This 8 in (20 cm) long species occurs in several color phases (gray, red, and brown), and it nests in cavities and sometimes in nestboxes.

The snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca) breeds in the tundra of North America and Eurasia. However, this species wanders much farther to the south during winter, when the small mammals it eats are difficult to obtain in the Arctic. The snowy owl is a whitish-colored bird that nests on the ground, feeds during the day, and is relatively tame, often allowing people to approach rather closely.

The burrowing owl (Speotyto cunicularia) is a species that inhabits grasslands and prairies in southwestern North America, southern Florida, and parts of Central and South America. This species hunts during the day, often hovering distinctively while foraging. In the prairies, these owls typically roost and nest in the burrows of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus).

The spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) is a rare species of coastal, usually old-growth forests of southwestern North America and parts of Mexico. The northern sub-species (S. o. caurina) is listed as "threatened" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Because the habitat of the spotted owl is being diminished by logging of the old-growth forests of Washington, Oregon, and California, plans have been developed for the longer-term protection of this bird. These plans require the protection of large tracts of old-growth, conifer-dominated forest to ensure that sufficient areas of suitable habitat are available to support a viable population of these owls.


Importance of owls

Owls that feed in agricultural areas provide benefits to humans by killing large numbers of small rodents which
might otherwise eat crops in the field or in storage. Owls are also widely sought out by bird watchers, who highly value sightings of these elusive and mysterious predators. Bird watchers and other naturalists spend a great deal of money for transportation and birding paraphernalia to engage in their pursuit of owls and other species.

Owls are rarely viewed as pests . In rare instances, they may kill some gamebirds, such as grouse or pheasant, and some gamekeepers have killed owls and other birds of prey for this reason. However, owls are not true pests, and enlightened game managers no longer persecute these birds.

Owls are, however, threatened by other activities of humans. They are exposed to toxic chemicals in forestry and agriculture, and this has taken a toll on some species of owls. Burrowing owls, for example, have been poisoned by exposure to the insecticide carbofuran, which is used to control epidemic populations of grasshoppers in prairie agriculture.

More important, however, have been the effects of habitat loss on owls. Urban, industrial, and agricultural development all degrade the habitat of most species of owls and other native species, causing large reductions in their populations and even their disappearance from many areas. In North America, this type of effect is best illustrated by the case of the spotted owl, which is threatened by logging of its habitat of old-growth conifer forest. In that particular case, the owls can only be protected by setting aside large areas of suitable habitat as ecological reserves. This strategy is costly for the forest industry, because large amounts of valuable timber become protected from exploitation. However, this must be done if spotted owls and their associated species are to sustain their populations in their natural habitat.


Resources

books

Burton, J.A., ed. Owls of the World. Their Evolution, Structure, and Ecology. London: Peter Lowe, 1992.

Forshaw, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Academic Press, 1998.

Hume, R. Owls of the World. Limpsfield, England: Dragon's World, 1991.

Konig, K. Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

Voous, K.H. Owls of the Northern Hemisphere. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.


Bill Freedman

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"Owls." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. 10 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Owls." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved December 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/owls

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Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

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The Chicago Manual of Style

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Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.