Owls of Illinois
They hunt silently and rarely are seen by humans.
Many associate them with death or evil forces. Others see them as wise and all-knowing.
And it sure is funny to see their heads swivel nearly 180 degrees.
They’re not only curious; they’re the source of great curiosity from humans.
“A lot of those ignorant beliefs have evolved,” said John Mullen, assistant chief naturalist at Forest Park Nature Center and a board member of the Peoria Audubon Society. “Now owls are recognized as not only a fascinating animal with certain attributes that make it so great for what it does, but there’s a little mystery to it, too. Because it’s at night, people are curious about it. Our Owl Prowls here are very popular. We get repeat people who come time and again.”
Although Owl Prowl participants often brave winter weather just to exchange owl hoots and maybe see a silhouette or dimly lighted view of a barred owl—or no owl at all, depending on their luck—many take a permanent liking to the birds of prey.
“People get fascinated by them,” Mullen said. “It’s that interest of something you don’t get to experience all that often. You can come down here and see wild turkeys or deer just about every day. How often do you get to see an owl in the wild? And it’s not always successful. It becomes an adventure. You traipse out into the wild and you hoot and you see what happens.”
The snowy owl and northern saw-whet are sometimes seen in Illinois. Short-eared and barn owls are Illinois endangered species, with the latter rarely found around Peoria (though there have been reports in Peoria County in the past year). Some winters, including this one, short-eared owls can be seen hovering and swooping down on prey at Banner Marsh.
The three most common owls in central Illinois are the great horned, barred (pictured above) and screech (pictured at the end of this story). All three are perch hunters, meaning that they sit on a tree branch and wait for a rodent or other prey to move on the ground below before attacking.
People living in an urban area are unlikely to see any owl other than the screech, which weighs only a few ounces and has a wingspan of about 20 inches. The screech is the most comfortable around humans, but only to a point.
“That one’s adapted pretty well to our urban-suburban environment,” Mullen said. “You can get those in your backyard. It doesn’t take a very big tree, and they’ll nest in old woodpecker holes. They’re quite territorial to their nests. If you have a screech owl nesting nearby, enjoy it from a distance. They are so territorial that when they are nesting there have been reports of them attacking a human—not because they’re malicious, but only because they’re protecting their young.
“We had a woman call and she had gotten hit in the head with talons. It swooped down and hit her with its talons, and she had to get stitches. That was in a rural area on the edge of Peoria.”
The great horned and barred grow larger, up to four pounds or more and with a wingspan that can sometimes exceed 4 feet, and prefer more forested areas where they hunt rodents, insects, amphibians, lizards and even other birds.
The Peoria Zoo has a screech owl used for educational purposes such as school visits.
Guests at Wildlife Prairie State Park can view two great horned and one barred at the raptor enclosure, with plans to expand. Four kinds of owls—great horned, barred, barn and screech—are kept at Wildlife’s Forest Hall Education Center.
The Wildlife park takes in many injured owls, almost always from encounters with cars.
“On the forms we get it’s HBC—hit by car,” said Bonnie Cannon, Wildlife’s education director. “Everybody knows what it means. They don’t have peripheral vision, and owls have a very flat face. Their eyes are right on the front of their face. Without peripheral vision and without the ability to turn their eyes, they focus on their food and fly straight toward it. Cars sound like the wind, and they’re not going to turn to look at the wind.”
Owls are built for nocturnal hunting.
Serrated wings allow owls to break through the wind while creating virtually no sound.
Flat faces and a disk shape around each eye allow for utilizing light. Along with excellent eyesight, owls have offset ears - a long, thin slit slightly higher on one side of the head than the other.
“In looking at that, biologists realized a great reason for that would be that the sound would get to each ear at a slightly different rate,” Mullen said. “Consequently, by hearing sounds at a slightly different time, it gives them an accurate trajectory on where that item is. If you’re sitting in a tree branch and your whole life depends on being able to capture something to eat, obviously you have to have great eyesight to be a night-time bird. But you also need excellent hearing.”
Although effective, their eyes are so tightly enclosed they are unable to move. Without peripheral sight, owls have to more their entire head to change their line of vision.
Contrary to popular belief, owls are unable to spin their heads 360 degrees back to the front. But they can turn nearly 180 degrees.
Fact vs. fiction
In many cultures’ folklore and mythology, owls have been associated with witchcraft, evil and death.
Mullen saw examples of that when he formerly surveyed spotted owls in Oregon.
“Myths affect us even today,” he said. “Having gone out with a Native American on a survey in the Northwest, he said oftentimes creatures of the night are associated with death. Also, the sounds that some of these animals make—screeches and barks—become a sound that’s associated with suffering and death.”
Said Cannon: “There is a belief that if you hear an owl call when it’s out of the ordinary, particularly in the middle of the day, that someone you love has passed on. I’ve talked to three different people who have told me it’s happened to them.”
Despite reservations shown by other cultures, Mullen and Cannon mostly see people treat owls as beloved creatures. Cannon often stops guests who appear ready to pet one of the captive owls.
Although often feared, owls also have long been regarded as highly intelligent.
Cannon chuckles when recalling old television commercials in which “Mr. Owl” is consulted to find out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.
“They don’t actually wear mortar boards or glasses,” Cannon said of her owls.
She remembers a day when a captive barred owl had a tired expression on his face and was allowed to skip that day’s flight demonstration for visitors. The following day, Cannon watched the owl’s face change from alertness to extreme drowsiness as soon as guests appeared.
“He learned to act in an instant,” Cannon said. “It’s pretty amazing. They’re very adaptable to what gets them by.”
Adaptable doesn’t necessarily equal genius, though. In fact, Cannon said she sees more signs of intelligence in other birds such as eagles and crows.
“People associate the owls with wisdom,” Cannon said. “Out of all the birds, they look most like a human. They have a flat face with the eyes in the front. With their giant eyes, they look very, very intense. They observe everything. Therefore, people think they are very smart.
“They are smart in their own way. Something different in their habitat can get them killed, so they’re constantly observing their own habitat. If I’m wearing a different pair of tennis shoes, they just look and they freeze. They know, ‘This is different.’ They’re smart for what they do, but in all reality they have very small brains.”
No matter to owl lovers, who see eyes as windows to the soul.
“I think one of the reasons people are fascinated is that facial expression, those big eyes,” Mullen said. “Whether that somehow connotes some sort of above-average intelligence—because of that face that looks so alert and aware and on top of things—perhaps that’s it. Eyes are one of the most expressive things people key on. When you meet somebody, you look them in the eye.”