The World of the Owl

Great Horned and babies

Great Horned Owl and babies  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Since owls and hawks are both raptors (from the Latin ‘rapere’, to seize) and they share morphological and behavioral traits, originally they were thought to be close relatives.  However, with the emergence of DNA analysis, owls are now known to be only distantly related to hawks and far more closely related to nightjars and nighthawks, a similar group of mostly nocturnal birds.  Owls have probably fascinated and captured the imagination of humans from their first encounter.  These mysterious birds of the night, with their silent flight, large eyes, spooky calls and deadly predation figure prominently in folklore and religion from ancient Greece to Native America.  Owls are simultaneously associated with wisdom, prophecy and death.  In some cultures they are revered, or at least considered good luck and wise, whereas in others an owl and its call are feared as evil and a prophecy of doom.  Birders find them fascinating as well, often giving up a nice dinner or an evening at the theater for an opportunity to go owling.  Some of my birder friends could be considered obsessed with owls, but I’m pretty sure most of them view owls as good luck rather than harbingers of doom.

Wise-old Great Horned Owl

Our most common owl, the Great Horned  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

About 164 species of owls are found worldwide on every continent except Antarctica, and in virtually all habitat including farmland, forests, deserts, islands, tundra and cities.  Of those 164 species, only 19 breed north of Mexico, and these range from the Southwest’s 6-inch Elf Owl to the 27-inch Great Gray Owl of the northern U.S. and Canada.  The most common owl in SaddleBrooke is the Great Horned Owl, widespread from Canada through Mexico and often seen sleeping in a mesquite or palm tree during the day or calling from a chimney top at dusk.

Heart-faced Barn Owl

Heart-faced Barn Owl  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Owls don’t build nests, but use platforms, cavities or other birds’ abandoned nests instead.  Local Great Horned Owls have ‘nested’ on the flat patio rooftop outside a second story SaddleBrooke restaurant, in the crook of a forked saguaro or in a regular nest of sticks built by Common Ravens.  Owls are carnivorous, eating a wide range of invertebrates and vertebrates, and are one of our best friends when it comes to controlling the spread of white-throated wood rats, commonly called pack rats.  Great Horned Owls can eat a rat daily, which amounts to more than 9,000 rats during their 25-year lifespan.  Think about that the next time a pest control salesman tries to talk you into using a poisoned bait box to kill a rat in your yard.  The poison they use is a slow acting agent that doesn’t kill a rat for two or three days, while he staggers around looking like an easy prey to owls, hawks and bobcats.  Kill one rat with poison that then secondarily kills a Great Horned Owl, and you’ve unintentionally added thousands of rats to our population.

Burrowing Owls, Rocky Point

Ground-dwelling Burrowing Owls, Puerto Penasco  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

An owl that roosts and nests in burrows rather than above ground is the appropriately-named the Burrowing Owl, a small 10-inch owl that can be found perching in the open or peeking out of a dirt burrow built by prairie dogs or ground squirrels.  Burrowing Owls eat small rodents, lizards and birds, and I’m guessing prairie dogs and ground squirrels.  Like other small owls, Burrowing Owls are cute and often sought after by birders.  However, they line their flea-ridden burrows with cow chips, horse dung, food debris and pellets, and, not surprisingly, they often choose a new burrow a couple of weeks after their young emerge.  And by the way, if their housekeeping habits don’t discourage visitors, they also mimic a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Lopez Island Barred Owl

Barred Owl, Lopez Island Washington  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

(This article originally appeared in the December, 2018 Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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