Owls are elusive creatures staring into the distance with their bulbous eyes, often exhibiting calmness and continuous reflection. In Greek mythology, the little owl (which actually exists) accompanies the goddess of wisdom, Athena. Throughout history, owls have been used as symbols of wisdom, knowledge and shrewdness. Real world owls don’t disappoint. As birders, we know how difficult it is to spot these often solitary and nocturnal birds, so we ask ourselves: “Where is the Wise Owl?”
There are 225 owl species in the world and 19 of them are in North America. They can be divided into two family bird classifications: Strigidae, which are true owls, and Tytonidae, barn owls. Most owls are strigidae. Owls typically have an upright stance, a large and broad head, binocular vision, keen hearing, and feathers that allow them to fly in silence. They’re also able to camouflage. Some owls can turn their heads up to 270 degrees, since their large eyes are locked into the skull. The act of looking for owls is called owling. Below is a list of our favorite owls and the states, national parks, and regions where you can find them.
Great Horned Owl
This owl is known as the big, scary hoot owl, often seen in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Its intimidating stare, large claws, regal ear tufts and excellent night vision make it a worthy predator, even catching larger raptors like the Ospreys and the Peregrine Falcons. They hunt by perching on high ground then diving down with wings folded, before grabbing their prey. Their strong talons require a force of 28 pounds to open, and they defeat their prey by severing their spine. Great Horned owls prefer to eat rabbits and hares, but will feast on rodents, squirrels, raccoons, and other birds, including crows, turkey, ducks and swans. They can be found in deserts, wetlands, deciduous and evergreen forests, grasslands, backyards, and cities.
These snowy creatures are recognizable anywhere with their pale whiteness and striking yellow eyes. They are partial migrants in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Reserve. Unlike other owls, Snowy owls tend to be out during the daytime. Their hunting style is all about waiting, perched atop a fencepost or anywhere with a good view. Prey are captured on the ground, in the air, or snatched from water. These owls are abundant in the arctic tundra or in open grasslands and fields. Generally they don’t frequent forested areas, although they do make appearances on lakeshores, marine coastlines and marshes when migrating south. The Snowy owl is a nomadic bird, going even to northern U.S. when there is excessive cold. Snowy Owls have been spotted in eastern portions of the U.S. during some migratory periods, including New York and New England.
Great Gray Owl
This gray giant measures 27 inches long, the largest among its owl friends. It’s a nocturnal owl, but also goes out at dusk and a little before dawn. During breeding season they often roam in the daytime. When flying, they have soft, slow wingbeats, and usually move between short distances, from perch to perch. They frequent coniferous forests along the edge of the Arctic treeline, through spruce and tamarack muskeg forests further south. Foraging occurs in swamps, bogs, and forest clearings where they can find scattered trees and shrubs. Great Gray owls are found in estuaries, mountain meadows, and along farm fields, during migration. The range occurs from Alaska across Canada, down the Northern Rocky Mountains, and northern Minnesota. The Great Gray owl of Yosemite National Park is genetically distinct to other Great Gray owls found elsewhere in the U.S. In total there are at least 8 different owl species in the area.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
At 6 to 7 inches in length, one of the smallest of the group is the Northern Saw-whet Owl, often seen in California’s Redwood National and State Parks. which has a small body, a large rounded head and no ear tufts. Though small, it remains tough when preying on mice and other small mammals such as titmice, chickadees, and kinglets. The saw-whet owls are forests birds that are common across northern North America when breeding. They winter in dense forests across the central and southern U.S. Since Saw-whets are nocturnal, they are hard to see, but their shrill high-pitched too-too-too can serve birders. They prefer mature forests when foraging, deciduous trees for nesting, and dense conifers for roosting with a riverside area nearby.
At 5 inches, the Elf owl is a tiny, short-tailed owl with a round head and no ear-tufts. They are nocturnal birds and inhabit arid deserts where saguaro cacti, thorn scrub, and mesquite or deciduous woodlands are abundant. From March until October they are found in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. They are recognized by their bat-like flying and their high-pitched “whi-whi-whi-whi-whi.” In the face of danger, the Elf Owl straightens its body, covers its lighter parts with one wing, then turns its head and peers over the bent wing with the top of its eyes. They are not confrontational, preferring to stay away than fight. They eat mainly insects and scorpions, sometimes mice or small birds. They range from Southwest USA to Central Mexico, Baja California and Socorro Island. The northern populations winter in Central Mexico.
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- Sombrio Windy Pass II Short
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