All eyes on owls

A mount of a great-horned owl on display during last Tuesday’s presentation by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Richard Frisky, a biologist with the PA Game Commission, explains the anatomy of the barn owl at a presentation in Dallas Tuesday night.

Bill Williams flapped a hawk wing and created a whoosh sound to demonstrate how the raptor is built for speed, but not necessarily silence.

Then he took a wing from a screech owl and flapped it just as hard, but it didn’t produce a sound.

“That mouse wouldn’t hear a darn thing,” Williams said, referring to an owl’s ability to hunt with silence and stealth.

That was one of several highlights from last Tuesday’s owl program presented by the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Northeast Region in Dallas. A packed house gathered to listen to Williams, who is the region’s information and education supervisor, and PGC non-game biologist Rich Fritsky clear up some myths about owls and discuss the status of the eight species that inhabit the state.

While owls are commonly thought of as wise, Williams said, they’re probably not at the top of the list when it comes to intelligence among birds because their large eyes occupy most of the brain cavity in their skull.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting and complex.

Other than certain species of penguins, owls are the only birds whose eyes face forward, Williams said. They can rotate their heads 270 degrees and their eyes have binocular vision, which gives them better depth perception when hunting.

But their hearing is another adaptation which makes owls among the most efficient predators.

“On all owls, the left ear opening is higher than the right,” Williams said. “That’s because it needs to hear in three dimensions. The sound of a mouse, for example, rises from the ground, hits one ear opening first and then up to the other.”

Williams discussed several owl species found in Pennsylvania, interjecting interesting facts about each. The saw-whet owl is Pennsylvania’s smallest – weighing between two and five ounces.

“It has a unique call and that’s how it got it’s name,” Williams said. “Years ago when people sharpened their tools on a whet stone, they thought it sounded like this owl’s call.”

The long-eared owl is different in that it requires stands of pine or hemlock to roost and nest, but it hunts in open grasslands.

The short-eared owl hunts primarily during the day and is state-listed as endangered, but it’s the barn owl that is most at-risk in the state.

Fritsky said population surveys conducted in 2005 indicated the barn owl population was declining, and the few nests that are found in the region are located in barns or abandoned silos.

With their light plumage and large, heart-shaped face, Fritsky said barn owls were a source of mystery years ago.

“Imagine what you would think if you saw something fly across your barn in the middle of the night and didn’t have Google to search and identify it,” Fritsky said. “You’d probably think your barn is haunted.”

Fritsky actively monitors several barn owl nests in the Columbia/Northumberland area, and one barn owl nest has successfully fledged young for each of the last nine years.

“Winter can be a big impact on these owls,” he said. “If there’s a freeze that results in the top layer of snow becoming a sheet of ice, then that’s an impenetrable barrier to the rodents underneath.”

The owl program is one of three the PGC’s Dallas office will hold this summer. The topic for programs in July and August will be announced soon.

Doris McQuade of Harveys Lake said she’ll attend future programs and said the owl presentation taught her a lot about the species.

“I hear them at night, but I didn’t know how to tell the difference between the calls,” she said.

Her husband, Jack, said he was surprised at how much some owl species are decreasing in the state, and he hopes they make a comeback.

“Just like the bats, owls do a lot of good in controlling mice and rodent populations,” he said. “I love it when I know something natural is taking care of the mice around my house.”