This summer, many families will take extended float trips that involve camping overnight. A lucky few may see or hear owls. These majestic creatures are an essential and beautiful part of Missouri’s forests and wildlife areas, and it’s important that they are not killed, captured or disturbed.
If it weren’t for owls, animals such as mice, rats and rabbits could overrun the planet. Like humans, owls look for meals that are easy, catching small animals that are slower, weaker or diseased, thus creating a stronger and healthier prey population in the process. But owl populations are small because it takes a lot of prey to support just one owl. In fact, the risk of owl extinction hangs in the balance due to threats to their environment.
There are ways you can help. Remember it is illegal to keep owls as pets. If you know someone who possesses an owl, dead or alive, contact the Missouri Department of Conservation or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Around your home or farm, you can retain large, hollow trees or old buildings. These are ideal nesting areas for owls. You can also place nesting boxes for screech owls and barn owls.
With owls around, you don’t need pesticides or rat poisons as much, so use these products conservatively. Owls can control the rodent population, to a certain extent, if you encourage them to live around you. If you see a baby owl out of the nest, leave it alone. Baby owls are better at defending themselves from danger than you might think, and their parents will be back soon to feed them, even if you don’t see them around at the moment. Owls that have been reared in domestic environments almost never return to their proper place in the wild.
Like hawks, eagles and falcons, owls are raptors because they have talons or sharp claws on their feet for catching prey and a hooked beak to tear it apart. But unlike other raptors, owls are nocturnal, making it easier for them to hunt mice and other small animals that also are active at night.
Owls have huge eyes that provide them with excellent night vision. Like humans, owls’ eyes look forward, allowing them to see an object from two different angles, producing three-dimensional perception. This “3-D vision” makes it easier for owls to detect perches and branches while flying at night, it also helps detect the distance of prey. However, an owl’s eyes cannot move in their sockets, so they must swivel their heads to focus on an object.
In addition to “3-D vision,” owls also have, in a sense, “3-D hearing.” While ear openings for owls face forward, the right ear opening is higher than the left ear opening. Because each ear receives a sound from different angles, and the owl’s facial disc focuses the sound waves into the ears, the owl has what is considered 3-D sound. In fact, research has shown that barn owls can detect prey in total darkness because of their incredible hearing.
And it’s not only their hearing that helps owls to catch their prey, so does their silent flight. To reduce the sound of flowing air, tiny serrations along the owl’s leading edge of flight feathers empower owls in their surprise attacks. Owls locate their prey from a perch or in flight. Flying in quickly, they swoop in feet first before carrying their prey in their beaks, or feet, back to the perch or nest.
If you’re not a fan of rodents, you can see that owls are nice to have around. Maintaining the environment for owls helps them and, in the long run, us.
Written by Will Hanke, an avid floater who runs Float Missouri, a website that promotes floating the rivers of Missouri, provides information on the wildlife you may encounter, and helps visitors find one of the many outfitters throughout the state; Photos courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation