By Brannen Basham
Appalachian woodlands and forest edges are haunted by specters. Perched among bare branches and rocky ledges, silent predators take to the night in search of any small mammal, bird, insect or other creature unlucky enough to be caught out in the open.
For many of the small nocturnal animals that take up residence on and around the forest floor, a flash of feathers is their last sight as they rapidly depart from the land of the living. Most who fall victim to these ghosts of the woods have no idea they are being tracked until escape is out of the question. This is because their hunters, the owls of Appalachia, are meticulously stealthy and voracious hunters.
Western North Carolina is home to several different types of owls, some of which can even be found in heavily urbanized areas.
While we are fast asleep catching ZZZZZZs in our beds, these owls are hard at work catching a wide variety of animals in and around our properties, helping to maintain a critical balance in the species that live there.
Owls utilize a variety of unique talents and adaptations in order to retain their position of apex nighttime predators. Many of these powers are specially tuned for hunting and navigating n low-light environments.
Their eyes, for example, have incredibly sensitive pupils that allow for the maximum amount of light to shine onto the highly developed cone structures of their inner eyes. Their eyes are built very differently than ours; while we have circular eyes that can easily rotate inside of their sockets, owl eyes are instead elongated tube-like structures that are rigidly held in place. This allows for enhanced detail and depth perception, but as a consequence owls must rely on moving their entire heads in order to maneuver these huge binoculars around.
Because of these unique restrictions, owls have developed necks with extra vertebrae that allow for about 270 degrees of movement. Their heads can actually rotate so far that the blood supply to the brain is cut off. Luckily owls have also evolved to have specialized bone, muscle and blood vessel constructions that allow them to stay conscious while they perform such intensive craning.
The ears of owls are also sensitive and finely tuned, and scientists believe that owls rely on their hearing for the majority of their hunting. In order to avoid unnecessary background noise and to help sneak up on prey, the feathers of many owls are built and notched in a way that removes the buffering heard from other bird flight.
Such specialized feathers can have a downside, however, as most owl feathers are not waterproof and can make inclement weather dangerous for these regal birds.
Multiple types of owls take up residence in the area, most notably the eastern screech owl, great horned owl, barred owl and the northern saw-whet owl. While these all differ in size, habitat and preferred prey, most owls share similarities in habitat requirements that are good to know. Owls normally take up shelter during the day in tree hollows, upturned tree roots or similar locations.
During the summer they create nests in tree hollows in order to raise their young. During the rest of the year, they tend to live alone. Man-made owl boxes can provide shelter for these birds if nothing else is available, however, leaving trees with hollows in them standing for as long as possible goes a long way in providing premier owl habitat.
Owls are intelligent and opportunistic residents, so leaving areas of your property wild wherever possible is always a great way to provide various habitats for these local wildlife.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.