International Owl Awareness Day
Be an Owl Pal
What’s This Owl About?
International Owl Awareness Day (IOAD) raises awareness about our beloved nocturnal raptors annually on August 4. Owls have long captivated us with their mystery and perceived wisdom, but their representation in pop culture media, folklore, and material possessions does not always do these magical creatures justice.
Despite their prominence in diverse international cultures, we often unintentionally harm our beloved owls. American Bird Conservancy and Partners in Flight (PFI) suggests that a third or more of our native owl species are in decline. International Owl Awareness Day not only celebrates the humble owl, but it also educates our community on how they can join us in conserving and protecting these fantastic beasts.
Owls are nocturnal—or night-time hunting—birds of prey. They typically have large heads, stocky bodies, and short tails. There are over 200 species of owl found worldwide and 19 species in North America. Some of these species, such as the barn owl, have populations spanning several continents!
As nocturnal predators, owls have special adaptations to help them hunt in the dark for prey. The leading edge of their wing feathers have comb-like serrations to help them fly silently. Their eyes are unusually large for their head and more tube-shaped than round. The size and unique shape mean that they’re unable to move their eyes, but it also means that they’re better suited for seeing in the dark. Owls’ eyes make up approximately 3% of their body weight. That may not sound like much, but it means that their eyes, proportionally, are ten thousand times larger than human eyes!
Hearing is an especially important sense for owls. Though some species have feather tufts on top of their heads called “plumicorns,” those have less to do with hearing and more to do with camouflage. Humans and many mammals have fleshy cartilage to help funnel sound into our ears. With owls, their head is shaped like a satellite dish to channel the sound. A ring of rigid feathers surrounding their face magnifies this satellite-dish effect. Owls’ ears are located behind their eyes and are hidden by feathers. Some species of owls have ears that are asymmetrical, meaning that one ear is higher than the other. Having uneven ears helps owls locate the precise location of their prey.
Because sight and hearing are so important to owls, they have another adaptation to help them hunt: their ability to rotate their heads. Owls can turn their heads close to 270 degrees left or right. They have twice the number of neck vertebrae—or bones—as mammals; whereas most mammals have 7 neck vertebrae, owls have 14. Owls are the ones with a head-turning reputation, but the truth is that many bird species also have flexible necks!
Nature’s Best Pest Control
Owls aren’t picky eaters and will eat prey like mammals, birds (including other owls), insects, amphibians, and reptiles. Some owls—like the Great-Horned Owl—have been known to dine on skunks and even porcupines! Though owls’ general diets vary species to species, rodents are a staple for most owls, making them excellent natural pest control.
You can attract these wild neighbors to your own yard by building nestboxes! It is important to do your research before installing a nestbox; an improperly installed nest box can do more harm than good. American Eagle Foundation recommends using our nestbox plans and Cornell Lab’s NestWatch to determine which owl box works best with your habitat.
One of the most effective rodent hunters is the mythic Barn Owl because of their voracious appetites and potential to rear large broods. Sustainable agriculture uses them as part of “integrated pest management” by placing nest boxes in areas with large populations of gophers, mice, rats, and other pests that would harm their crops. A single breeding pair of barn owls can consume 3,000 rodents annually; a three-year study by field researcher Mark Browning observed a large population of barn owls taking 25,682 rodents over the course of two years.
How can You Give a Hoot?
If you’d like to be an Owl Pal, consider adopting the following practices:
–Use natural deterrents or raptor-safe traps instead of poisons or sticky traps to control rodents. Rodenticides can kill raptors and other predators through secondary poisoning, and, because of this, they actually increase rodent populations over time by eliminating their natural predators. Sticky traps are not only inhumane, but they often trap more than the target species. American Eagle Foundation recommends Goodnature traps as a raptor-safe alternative to traditional pest control methods.
–Don’t litter! Tossing food out of your car window attracts rodents and other scavengers to the roadside, which in turn attracts their predators; this is compounded by the fact that even food we perceive as “biodegradable” takes longer to decompose than we might believe. Some fruit—like apple cores and banana peels—can take years to biodegrade! Collisions with vehicles are a common threat impacting owl populations for this reason.
–If possible, leave dead trees untouched to preserve owl nesting spaces. Many owl species are cavity roosters and nesters, so these trees provide shelter and nesting sites for your local nocturnal neighbors. Of course, safety to people and property should be considered when leaving dead trees untouched.
–Plant native or mow less to provide owls with hunting territories. Native grasses and plants help sustain local wildlife. The truth is that many grass species used in perfectly manicured lawns are invasive and provide little benefit to native fauna. If you have an abundance of land, consider leaving strategic spots unmowed or leaving brush piles to provide habitat for owls’ prey.
–Build nest boxes in areas where dead trees or nesting cavities are scarce. Nest boxes are an excellent way to help owl populations while also gaining the benefit of free pest control! Research your ecosystem to identify what owl species you can support and how to properly install a nestbox. Watching owls take up residence in a box is fun for the whole family!
-Keep your cats indoors. Outdoor cats pose a risk to birds and other wildlife, disrupt ecosystems, and spread disease; according to American Bird Conservancy, cats kill between 500 million and one billion birds each year, along with billions of small mammals.
-Avoid using dangerous decorations around the holidays. Fake spider webs, Christmas lights, and sky lanterns all are tangle hazards for owls. Ensure that Christmas lights are secured and avoid using fake web outdoors.
-Remove hazardous litter from the environment. Old barbed wired, sport nets, and baling twine are hazardous to owls and all birds of prey. If the sport nets are frequently used, consider taking them down between sports matches.
Despite the benefits that owls provide to us and their ecosystems, some species of owl are in decline, and the barn owl is one such species. The mid-western and northeastern United States have observed a decline in barn owls, and at least fourteen states have recognized the barn owl as endangered or a species of special concern.