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In The Country

The Ghost Owl

Ranger Jen Miller
Cunningham Falls State Park

(Nov, 2011) Imagine that you are a farmer in Colonial America. It is a late, cold October night and you are resting peacefully on your straw mattress after a hard dayís work. The night is still with the Harvest Moon highlighting any movement. Out of the silence comes a hideous shriek! You bolt upright in bed. The cry is coming from your barn where the dairy cow is bedded down for the night. You dash out of your house in your dressing gown with lantern in hand. Nothing can happen to your cow, as she is the sole source of milk and butter for your family. You creep to the barn door and slowly pull it open as you raise the lantern higher to illuminate the inside of the barn. All of a sudden a white flash emerges from the darkness and crashes into your head! A horrible hiss and familiar shriek echo as the specter disappears into the night. Was it a ghost? It was no ghost, but a Barn owl! But with its spine tingling call, luminescent white feathering, and defensive flying techniques it is easy to see how this owl provided much fodder for tales of spirits since the beginning of human history.

Barn owls are a distinct family of owls, completely separate from all other owl species due to genetics and their physical structure. Sometimes referred to as the Monkey-faced owl, Barn owls have a heart shaped face with unique stiff feathers that channel sound waves into their ears. The ears are out of the ordinary in that they are positioned differently on each side of the head. Each ear also has a varying sensitivity to high and low frequencies. The owl can judge the location of a mouse by the differences in the sound intensities and the time it takes the sound to travel from ear to ear. Remember the final scene in Star Wars, when Luke is attempting to blow up the Death Star with the help of his planeís targeting computer? Barn owl hearing is like that targeting computer! With their amazing hearing, Barn owls can hunt in complete darkness. Interestingly, it has been shown that young Barn owls do not have the innate ability to locate their prey by analyzing the difference in sound intensities but fine tune this ability over time with the help of their sight.

Barn owls have distinct behaviors that set them apart from other owls as well. Their call is not in the classic whoo, whoo genre but rather a high pitched, raspy scream. Barn owls also add some interesting body language to get their point across to would be intruders. First the owl will sway side to side and open its wings to look bigger. This creates an outline that is strikingly similar to the common image of a ghost that is often depicted illustrations and modern day Halloween decorations! The next step is to do a move called toe dusting, in which the bird lowers its head and shakes it back and forth over its feet, as if to say, “No, no, no, no”. If this fails, the last resort is to dive bomb the interloper. Such behaviors can often be observed at the Scales & Tales Aviary at Cunningham Falls State Park.

The Aviary is home to a pair of Barn owls that are mother and son. The pair was nesting in a tree that was cut down. The female owl sustained a permanent wing injury, leaving her unable to fly. Her offspring is completely healthy but now imprinted on people. So neither owl can be released into the wild. This is a shame because Barn owls are mysteriously declining world wide and are considered uncommon to rare in Maryland. The main reason for this is thought to be loss of habitat. Barn owls prefer open fields and farmlands to hunt small rodents. It has been estimated that a Barn owl can eat one and a half times its weight in food each day! Thatís a lot of rodents considering a Barn owl weighs about as much as a loaf of bread. Not only are the Barn owlís natural habitats being lost to development but also man-made habitats that it prefers to nest in such as old barns. One way you can help is to create Barn owl habitat by building an owl nest box. Find plans and more information at: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/Habitat/WildAcres/wabarnowl.asp

The Barn Owl is an excellent reminder of the connections that exist and have always existed between humankind and the natural world. The interactions between wildlife and people are interwoven in our collective memories, traditions, and folklore. Our futures are entwined too. The fate of the Barn owl and many other species depend on our choices and actions. Chose wisely or the Barn owl may truly become a ghost.

Read other articles by Ranger Jen Miller