There’s No Need to Visit Hogwarts to Learn About Owls
While it’s rare for a Snowy Owl, such as Hedwig, to find her way this far south, the Alabama Wildlife Center’s annual roster does include Barn Owls, Barred Owls, Great Horned Owls, and Screech Owls (relatives of Percy’s beloved “Hermes”).
Coosa, a Barred Owl (pictured left), is a permanent resident at AWC. Coosa was approximately four to five weeks old, still covered with soft grey down, when he fell from his nest near Montevallo. A passer-by saw the little owl being savagely attacked by crows. When he arrived he was weak and shivering, with a deep wound extending from thigh to abdomen. Warmth and fluids gave immediate comfort and a month of twice-daily medical treatments helped bring the young owl back to a more stable condition.
Coosa’s wound gradually healed, but the extensive loss of muscle tissue, which had been damaged and required removal during the healing process, had weakened the leg too much for life in the wild. Because of his calm and gentle temperament, Coosa quickly learned to perch on a gloved hand and has become one of AWC’s “Education Birds” along with Mississippi Kite Natchez and Red-tailed Hawk Ireland to help staff educate visitors of all ages about the wonders of Alabama’s native wildlife. Guided tours that include a visit with Coosa can be arranged by appointment.
Vision in owls is extraordinarily keen. The eyes are very large, but they are fixed in the head, and can’t be rolled as a human’s can. Instead, an owl has the ability to rotate its head on its neck for about 270 degrees, or about three-fourths of a full circle. Owls’ eyes are placed in the front of the head, and have a total field of view of about 60 to 70 degrees in front of them. To get a better look at an object, they will move the entire head up and down or from side to side, which may look quite comical.
Owls can see in the daytime — the Short-Eared, Barred and Snowy owls hunt on cloudy days. The opaque nictitating membrane or third eyelid is well developed to protect the highly sensitive retina of owls’ eyes from the bright light of day. Most owl activity, however, occurs at dusk or after dark. Owls’ eyes are especially sensitive to light, and even the pale light of the moon and stars provide enough light for hunting and flying.
Hearing in owls is highly developed. Large openings in the side of the head are set asymmetrically so that it takes slightly longer for sound to reach one ear or the other. The owl has the ability to triangulate on the sound in order to locate its prey at night. Barn Owls can do this in complete darkness, but Barred Owls do not have this ability. The soft, deep feathers of the facial disk collect and focus the sound waves.
The talons and beaks of owls are sharp and curved to aid in capturing their prey and tearing the meat. Small prey may be swallowed whole. Some owls, such as the Great Horned Owl, have an extremely strong grip. The Barred Owl eats much smaller prey, and has a somewhat less strong grip, but all predatory birds should be respected, because they can inflict serious damage if threatened. The feet, not the beak, are their main weapons of defense. The sharp talons can lock on, and struggling only makes the grip tighten.
Like all migratory birds, owls are protected by federal law, and it is illegal to shoot or otherwise harm them. Keeping any wild bird as a pet is also a federal offense. AWC has special permits to rehabilitate wildlife, as well as a separate permit in order to keep education birds on-site to help teach Alabamians to understand and appreciate native wildlife. These permits are only issued to educational institutions with approved facilities.