Throughout history, owls have been revered, feared and misunderstood. The behavior of the “wise old” owl was observed by military leaders to help them determine war strategies. Native Americans carried owls’ feet for good luck and, at times, considered the calls of owls as a harbinger of misfortune or death. To this day, barn owls are associated with haunted houses.
Owls are effective predators, engaging in natural acts of killing and eating to sustain life. They are equipped with strong feet and talons, and large hooked beaks for capturing and feeding on prey, mostly rodents. They are indeed a “better mouse trap.”
All owls have acute sensory abilities. They have large eyes that are fixed in their sockets, so they must turn their heads to change their view. Because their hearing is extremely acute, they can hunt and capture prey at night without seeing them.
Saw-whet owls and screech owls are the smallest, and among the most common in the Finger Lakes region. Although a secretive bird of the forest, the tiny saw-whet tolerates a close approach once it is located. Screech owls are found in small woodlots and orchards. They are easy to call in by imitating their tremulous and descending whistling call.
The barn owl, also called “the monkey-faced owl,” frequents farmlands and city environs. They hunt and nest in churches, barns and abandoned buildings, and often consume their weight in mice daily.
The most vocal and one of the largest owls of our region is the barred owl. They prefer large forested areas near water, but can be brought in by imitating their eight-hoot call, whoo cooks for you – whoo cooks for you. Be forewarned: If you are camping and want some sleep, they’re difficult to stop once they get started.
The largest and most powerful owl common to our region is the great horned owl. It nests earlier than any other bird in New York, laying its eggs in January or February. Great horned owls prey upon just about anything imaginable, including rabbits, game birds, snakes, frogs, other owls, cats and even skunks.
One of the easiest ways to locate great horned owls during the day is to listen for a flock of cawing crows. They love to harass owls while they’re sleeping. Great horned owls are four hooters – hoo ho ho hoo – and can be heard on calm nights when the love bug gets them.
Snowy owls and short-eared owls are less common in the Finger Lakes, but fairly regular visitors in the winter. Both migrate from Canada and can be seen hunting mice over fields that are not buried in snow. This past winter I regularly watched short-eared owls and one snowy owl hunting during the day on the bluff over Keuka Lake.
Award-winning wildlife illustrator and naturalist Ernest Seton, a contemporary of Mark Twain, considered owls “winged tigers – who are the most pronounced and savage of birds of prey.” Pioneer farmers called them “cats with wings” because they preyed on chickens and songbirds. Because of their predatory lifestyle, owls were hunted freely, unprotected by law. Today, all of the owls in New York are protected as we have come to realize the important role of predators.
by Bill Banaszewki
Photographer Bill Banaszewski is owner of Finger Lakes Images and professor emeritus of environmental conservation at Finger Lakes Community College. A sample of his photographs can be viewed at TheFingerLakesImages.com.