A.M. Burns lives in the Colorado Rockies with his partner, several dogs, cats, horses, and birds. When he’s not writing, he’s often fixing fences, splitting wood, hiking in the mountains, or flying his hawks. As of January 2013, he is the president of the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group. www.csfwg.org You can find out more about A.M. and his writing at www.amburns.com, or follow him on twitter @am_burns
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Since it’s nearly Halloween, I figured owls would be a great thing to talk about. Owls are a group of mostly nocturnal raptors, or birds of prey. They occur all over the world and inhabit nearly every available ecological niche except for Antarctica.
Over the millennium, owls have worked their way into the human imagination like few other creatures have. They have been the companions of gods, the bringers of death, and the voices of wisdom. An owl was the bird of Athena, one of the major Greek Goddesses. In the folk lore of a large number of Native American tribes, owls were a harbinger of doom. And wizards, from Merlin down to Harry Potter, have all hung out with owls. All you have to do is a simple internet search to see how owls have permeated our folk art and culture.
It is my personal belief that owls, particularly the barn owl, which occurs everywhere but high mountains and frozen wastelands, are the source of most of our ghost myths. Look at a normal colored Barn Owl in flight. You get a round head and flowing, outstretched body, much like what most people think ghost look like. And the cry of a Barn Owl can be downright eerie. Scientist have proven that barn owls hunt mostly by sound and need no light on their nightly prowls. With their silent flight, is it any wonder that they have been scaring humans since we first swung down from the trees?
Since prey comes in all shapes and sizes, owls also vary in size. The basic shape of owls is fairly consistent with a bulky body, fairly stubby wings (compared to other birds of prey) and a round head which sits on their shoulders with minimal visible neck. Some of the smallest owls eat large insects with only the smallest of mammals consumed. Larger owls eat larger things, often taking prey that is three to five times their own size. Their bulky bodies give them excellent wing loading and allow them to carry off things that outweigh them. Here in North America, the Great Horned owl can easily carry off skunks and house cats. A feat that the Red Tailed Hawk, its diurnal counterpart, wouldn’t think about trying.
Most farmers know the benefit that owls bring to their farms. Owls help control rodent populations. A family of Barn Owls might eat between two and three hundred pounds of rodents and other vermin in the course of a season. They really are nature’s pesticides. Across the world right now, Barn Owls are losing habitat as old wooden barns are being torn down and replaced with modern metal structures. Caring farmers are out putting up nest boxes to help bring the Barn Owl populations back up to sustainable levels.
Ironically, while we are struggling to save an owl that we’ve known about for thousands of years, we’re discovering new species like the Omani Owl, recently discovered in the country of Omar in the Middle East. Being nocturnal creatures, it’s not hard for them to avoid discovery. It’s amazing the things that the night is hiding from us. Since we don’t see well in darkness, it’s something that we fear, giving those creatures like owls a place of their own to hide from us.
As our nights grow longer, the nocturnal creatures spend more time active. Owls are having a growing presence in our towns and cities. The best way to spot them is listen for them. It’s more than just the classic hoot of the Great Horned Owl, the little Screech Owl sounds almost like a horse, and as mentioned before, the Barn Owls have an eerie screeching call that makes people want to shutter their windows and pray for protection for evil spirits.
So as you wander around this All Hallows Eve, watch the shadows that glide around your streets and listen for the calls in the night. If you’re lucky, there just might be an owl hanging out somewhere, watching you and trying to see if any little mice run from you so they can have a treat as well.