|Owls Evoke Mixed Sentiments|
Owls have been a part of man’s world and mythos for a long time. They are clearly depicted in ancient cave drawings in both Europe and Asia. European cultures generally regarded owls with fear and avoidance, as bringers of bad fortune and even death. However, sentiments regarding owls were mixed. In some circumstances the calling or presence of an owl was believed to bring good fortune, while brews made from owl parts were believed to cure a variety of illnesses. Superstition aside, many a practical farmer recognized the value of a pair of owls as near neighbors. The ancient Greeks believed the owl to be a bird of wisdom, an idea which continues today.
Owls were viewed with similar mixed emotions among Native Americans. Some tribes believed owls were capable of providing important information, especially to tribal shamans. Cherokee shamans considered owls a particularly valuable consultant for all important decisions. Some tribes believed owls were responsible for guiding the souls of the dead safely to the afterlife, while other tribes fletched arrows with owl feathers to ensure their silent flight.
When Europeans arrived in North America, they brought negative feelings regarding owls with them. Few of their positive beliefs seem to have made the crossing. Many still viewed the owls as wise, but this wisdom was usually regarded as being of a somewhat dark and suspect nature. In general, European Americans considered owls to be birds of ill omen. Owls’ nocturnal habits have caused them to be allied, in the minds of many, with all that is evil and feared. Some still believe the untimely appearance of an owl to be a warning of bad luck, approaching death or witchcraft at work.
Many early naturalists believed owls to be highly destructive birds. They attributed considerable losses of poultry, especially half-grown poults, to owl depredation. Further, many believed owls to be responsible for destroying large numbers of desirable game species like ruffed grouse, bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasants, cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares, gray squirrels and fox squirrels. These reports have not been supported by food habit studies conducted since the late 1800s. Research has found poultry makes up only a very small percentage of most owls’ diets. Further, game species, especially game birds, make up a relatively small proportion of owls’ diets. Findings indicate nocturnal rodents and, for some species, insects make up the largest proportion of owls’ diets. Owls will, however, take whatever prey is available, including less preferred game species and poultry, if populations of their preferred food species are very low.
Which species make up the largest proportion of owls’ diet in a given area varies with regard to the population levels of available prey species. In general, the higher a species population grows, the more susceptible individuals are to predation. Typically, owls will tend to focus their feeding efforts on whichever of their prey species are most readily available and susceptible. Over time, this concentrated predation will result in reduced population and reduced susceptibility in a given prey species. Fortunately for the owls, while they were focusing on one prey species, one or more other species will have been experiencing a population growth. Eventually, another prey species will become the most readily available and owls will switch their feeding focus to that species. This "switching behavior" benefits man by helping to keep prey species from becoming so numerous they become a problem. Conversely, the owls’ feeding strategy benefits the prey species by helping reduce competition among the various species for limited resources. The broad range of size exhibited by different owl species and the associated differences in the size of prey they consume helps to reduce competition among owl species for food. Overall, owls’ consumption of large numbers of small rodents makes them more of an asset to man than a liability.
Owls and other predators can be viewed as indicators of the overall health, quality and energy flow of the ecosystems of which they are a part. As predators, populations of owls are limited by the quantity and diversity of appropriate prey species available. Because of the inefficiency of energy transfer from sunlight to plants, to herbivores, to predators, owls are especially sensitive to disruptions in natural systems. Therefore, healthy populations of owls, especially of multiple species, can be assumed to indicate healthy populations of their prey species and can, by extension, be viewed as evidence of a healthy, stable ecosystem.
As superstitions fade, owls are being held in high esteem by more and more people. For scientists, their importance as indicator species for the health of naturals systems is of obvious value. For many others, the intrinsic and aesthetic values seeing and hearing owls far outweigh whatever minor negative impacts they may have.
John S. Powers is an Area Wildlife Biologist for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.