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