Smokies Wildlife - Owls: Creatures of the Night

 Painting - "Barred Owl" - Terri Waters 

      The last rays of sunlight filter softly across the mountains, colors of rose and burnished gold against the sky. Dusk falls, and in the sudden darkness trees come alive with winged predators. Golden eyes glow among the leaves - far away, a quivering song echoes down the valley, shortly to be answered by the crier's distant mate. And to the hair-raising song yet another voice is added, low, deep-throated, a questioning, "Whoo, Whooo..." It is nightfall, and the reign of Smokies owls has begun. 

     The owl, though often heard at dusk, is one of the least often seen residents of these mountains. He is a solitary of the dark hours, a predator who searches the night forests for his diet of rodents, insects, and small birds. The owl's flight is completely noiseless, muffled by the softness of his feathers. He is a curious-looking creature: a hooked beak, big yellow eyes, and a ruff of facial feathers (sometimes ear tufts as well) give him the countenance of wisdom. In fact, the ancient Greeks believed the owl sacred to Athene, their goddess of wisdom.

     But those big yellow eyes have their drawbacks. Facing forward, unlike most birds' eyes, an owl's eyes can't be moved in their sockets. So, to watch moving prey, the owl must turn his head around up to 180 degrees. He can look backwards without moving his body, just his head!

     Of approximately 525 different kinds of owls, a small number inhabit the regions of the Great Smokies. Most familiar is the screech owl, a fairly common resident whose eerie cry can cause involuntary shivers in listeners. The screech owl measures about ten inches in length; his coloring is rust or gray, especially protective in the forest environs. This little owl nests in hollow trees, where four to six eggs on the average will hatch. His principal diet consists of small rodents, birds, and insects; and, on pleasant evenings in summer and fall, one is most likely to hear the screech owl's call through the forest.

     Another owl, though less common, is the Great Horned Owl. A big predator (the female weighs more than the male), he measures up to two feet long and is the only large owl with feather tufts on his head. The Great Horned boasts a soft white throat and huge yellow eyes with keen vision. He occasionally guilty of killing chickens but generally preys upon rabbits, mice, and skunks. Like most owls, he is a poor nest builder, and often settles for living in old nests abandoned by crows and hawks. There, the Great Horned Owl couple will hatch three eggs; the young, however, will not fly away until nine or ten weeks have passed. Then they will join in the dusk fall hunt, their deep throaty hoots occasionally rumbling across the woodlands of the Smokies. 

     Other owls of the Smokies include barn owls, barred, and sawwheat.