Owls of North Florida
The mystique of the owl is very much alive in and around Gainesville
Published: Tuesday, June 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2004 at 12:01 a.m.
All across the wilderness of North Central Florida, the questions echo in the night. "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"
Size: 16-25 inches tall; wingspan: 40-50 inches; weight: 18-37 ounces
Appearance: Gray-brown owl with white barring on chest
Habitat: Moist woodlands, along rivers and streams. They can be found in nests in trees, usually by water.
Call: Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?
Feeding: Small vertebrates. They also feed on small birds, small reptiles and insects.
Breeding: Monogamous, year-round courtship. Breeding occurs in winter months and female lays 2-4 white eggs.
Lifespan: Can live up to 23 years in captivity and 10 years in the wild.
GREAT HORNED OWL
Size: 18-25 inches; wingspan 36-60 inches; weight 32-63 ounces
Appearance: Vary in color from a reddish brown to a gray or black and white. They have tufts of feathers that appear to be "horns." sometimes called "ear tufts"
Habitat: Low, dry areas. Can be found in pine trees, usually in abandoned hawks nests.
Call: The common "Hoo Hoo Hoot."
Feeding: An array on invertebrates, sometimes much larger than itself, including chickens. They will also hunt each other.
Breeding: In winter months, two eggs normally. Very aggressive, will defend its nest at any means necessary.
Lifespan: Usually 13 years in the wild, while 25 years in captivity. Besides man, it has no natural enemy aside from itself.
EASTERN SCREECH OWL
Size: Small species, 8.5 inches; wingspan 20 inches; weight 7 ounces
Appearance: Red or gray variation.
Habitat: They often live in holes of oak trees near open pastures, an be spotted in suburban areas and golf courses.
Call: Strange, piercing scream.
Feeding: Small rodents like squirrels and large insects.
Breeding: During spring months, usually laying 3 eggs.
Lifespan: About 8 years. They are the second bird most likely to be killed by a moving vehicle behind robins.
No, it's not an inquiring chef, but rather one of the region's noisiest residents. The barred owl, one of the largest species of owls in Florida, bellows a mating call that sounds as if it is posing these two questions time after time, all night long, along the lakes, rivers and streams of North Florida.
The barred owl is one of more than 160 species of owls worldwide today, with 20 varieties native to North America. The barred owl is one of five species that finds the environs of Florida agreeable for its habitat. The great horned owl, a large species, and the Eastern Screech owl, one of the smallest species, also make their home in the wilderness of North Florida. The barn owl and the burrowing owl are also residents of Florida, but mainly live in the southern half of the peninsula.
The barred owl is the image most people conjure when they think of birds of the night in Florida - due in part to its distinct call but also to its ability to live in developed areas.
"The barred owl is the most common owl because they are the most adaptable," says Leslie Straub, director at Florida Wildlife Care, a wild-animal refuge at Boulware Springs in southeast Gainesville. "They are also very noisy."
Mark Hostetler, a professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida and an expert on owls, calls the barred owl one of this area's most talkative birds. They also have a unique personality, he says.
"They are very inquisitive," Hostetler says. "If you can mimic their call, they will call back."
Barred owls are also distinctive in that they do not migrate during the seasons and they are monogamous, he says.
"Owl pairs will stay in the same area if they have successful mating," he says.
In general, the legend of the noisy, nocturnal owl has both complicated and misunderstood. The owl has long been touted as mystic and wise because of its brooding stature and large eyes, leading to misconceptions about the birds.
In early Indian folklore, owls represented wisdom and supposedly enjoyed powers of prophecy. In the Middle Ages and during the first settlements in the United States, the owl was associated with black magic and witches, also a result of its eyes and nocturnal hunting.
During pioneer days, the sight of an owl was a bad omen. Owls were a curse, Straub says.
These superstitions have generally diminished, but today the owl remains a sorcerous creature, thanks primarily to the Harry Potter series and Tootsie Roll lollipop campaigns.
While there is suggestion that owls eat lollipops (with only three licks to get to the center) and hunt with black magic, they hunt and eat like most other carnivorous animals. The owl is a raptor, or bird of prey, meaning it hunts other animals for its food, Straub explains.
"Owls will generally eat small mammals and rodents," she says. "They hunt by themselves and have a broad prey species."
The barred owl and the Eastern Screech owl typically feed on small rodents. The great horned owl, however, is known to eat larger animals such as chickens and may even prey on other owls.
"Owls are aggressive hunters," says Straub, who is one of two experts on raptors who work for Florida Wildlife Care.
The owl is a unique species of bird, primarily because of its bone and body structure. The eyes, which collect 10 times the amount of light as humans, are fixed forward. Because their eyes cannot move from side to side, they have a rare bone structure in their neck, allowing them to turn to see their prey, Straub says.
"They have more bones in their neck than any other living animal," Straub says. "They can turn their neck almost completely around."
Another unique feature of the owl is its soft feathers, which make no noise when the owl is flying, Straub says.
The owl is primarily a nocturnal hunter, with the exception of the barred owl, which can be seen hunting in the early hours of the morning, she says. The barred owl can be found nesting in damp forests, mostly near water. You can hear barred owls hooting incessantly at night along the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers. The great horned owl can be found perched in nests atop pine trees, and screech owls typically live in oak trees and can be found in open grasslands such as Paynes Prairie.
What has made the owl so distinct is its unique mating and territorial calls. Owls are known mainly for their hoot calling. However, for many species, such as the Eastern Screech Owl, the hoot is not the primarily vocalization.
Because they are a predatory species and have no species preying on them, it is typical for an owl to survive eight to 10 years in the wild. In captivity, an owl can live much longer, Hostetler says. While owls have no natural predators in the wild, they do fall prey to man, often colliding with cars.
Few owls are found in captivity because it is illegal to possess an owl unless it has been injured. Jack Brown, instructor at the Santa Fe Community College Teaching Zoo, says the zoo's owls all are amputees. "They have lost a wing or half of a wing," he explains.
With the large number of owls in North Florida, it is not unusual to spot an owl gliding through the treetops or in an open field. Generally if there is any water source nearby, you may spot a barred, screech or great horned owl in a forest or maybe perched in a pine or oak tree in a pasture.
And if you hear that question about cooking, you can bet a barred owl is not far away.
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