Who's looking at you, kid?: Four species of owls live among us in Northeast Miss.

By Stephanie Rebman/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Owls are watching us all day, even though we may only hear an occasional “whoo” at night.
Owls don’t just live in the country and in barns, they can be found everywhere in Northeast Mississippi, even in downtown urban areas.
Wildlife experts admit owls are one of the lesser-studied animals because they are found only at night, and few statistics are available to pinpoint where they live and how many there are. But it’s proven that Northeast Mississippi is home to four types of the silent hunters and is a pit stop for at least a handful of others.
The Screech owl, Barred owl, Barn owl and Great-horned owl are living in the area’s trees, hollowed-out cavities, attics and barns.
“During the day they roost in trees right next to the trunk, camouflaged,” said Saltillo veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator Dr. John Morris. “They will look like a rotted tree branch. You can look at them and not even know they’re there.”
An owl generally starts its day around dusk, and once the creatures of the night come out and play, it’s time for the owl to hunt and eat.
While acres of undeveloped land are a good home for the owl, urban life also presents plenty of grub.
“Owls often head to where there’s houses and people,” Morris said. “Where there’s houses and people, there’s rats and mice. Where there are gardens, there are bugs and frogs.”
“Their whole body, and everything about them, makes them awesome hunters.”
Making a home
Tupelo resident Jeremy Herndon sits on his porch in Mill Village and watches the owls living on his property hunt at night.
In October, Herndon noticed a strange noise coming from above. He said it sounded like someone calling a dog, a clicking “tittt” noise.
After that, he found two feathers by a tree in his front yard. After watching the skies, he discovered a mother owl, a father owl and baby eggs in a tree in his front yard.
“After we found out where they were, we started watching them,” he said. “The mother stays in the nest and the father goes out and gets the food.”
All the while the owls have their eyes on their surroundings. In fact, Herndon said that when people are near the owls’ home, “The father will go and fly over to another tree and start making noises like babies, trying to fake us out.”
The owls had their home disturbed when the city came to take down the tree they were living in. Luckily for the owls, though, everyone involved wanted to let them keep their home.
“The city got to the hollow part of the tree and saw the eggs and the mother didn’t do anything,” Herndon said. “It wasn’t until they took the very last branch that she flew out. She basically circled overhead while they were working. She got up in a tree and watched until they were done.”
After three hours of work, “as soon as the last truck went around the corner, she was right back on the eggs.”
Herndon said the owls usually can be seen flying after about 10 p.m., and they lay low when there’s a lot of traffic.
Preserving owls
Traffic is the primary reason Morris winds up with owls in his clinic. Most often the creatures are brought to Saltillo after being hit by cars.
“Owls head to the pavement at night,” Morris said. “Because of the heat being absorbed in the pavement, frogs and other food head to the heat source. The owls swoop down and get the frogs and then are often hit by cars.”
Saltillo Small Animal Hospital takes in about 10 to 15 owls a year. About half are saved and released back into the wild. Generally, the only time an owl can’t be saved is when a wing is broken beyond repair.
It must be able to fly from the ground into a tree to be released, Morris said.
Whenever an owl is rehabbed, the hospital keeps records because owls are federally protected birds of prey. It’s illegal to harm an owl or even have feathers or body parts.
John Gruchy, who works in the game department of Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said the state gets calls “all the time” on owls.
“We get a lot more calls this time of year,” Gruchy said. “Their foraging is much more evident this time of year.”
Typically, he said, the state will send the owls to rehab centers, but they don’t keep statistics on how often. Many times they take the owls to raptor centers in Memphis, DeSoto County, Natchez, Rolling Fork and Jackson.
Benefiting humankind
Marcus Johnson, a wildlife biologist at Shiloh National Military Park, conducts owl prowls where people can learn about owls and see them in action. While it’s intriguing to view their massive wingspans up in the air and listen to the quizzical “whoo,” Johnson stresses owls are providing a valuable service.
“To me,” he said, “a lot of people don’t realize it, but there are a lot of deadly diseases that are associated with rodents and mice and rats, particularly mice with Hantavirus.”
The virus is in the waste matter of rodents, and breathing in the virus in large rodent infestations can kill a person.
“To slow threats of that – there’s a lot of animals that eat mice, of course – but owls are one of the more important ones because they’re one of the best hunters of mice,” Johnson said. “They reduce the risk. Most birds of prey aren’t disease carriers. They are important because they control pest population. They are very important and it is weird people don’t study them as much they should.”
In addition to the health benefits, Johnson has been thinking about starting a program to show people how owls in nature have inspired man, technologically speaking, in at least two ways.
“We have Stealth bomber jets, and you could argue the owl was probably a natural prototype,” he said. “It is a silent flyer. There are special markings and flight feathers which are called flutings, that eliminate the turbulent woosh of the feathers.
“Night vision is also inspired by the Great-horned owl. Not that they can see in total darkness, but in really dim light they are probably one of the best seers of any animal.”
Contact Stephanie Rebman at (662) 678-1585 or stephanie.rebman@djournal.com.

PROVIDE A HOSPITABLE ENVIRONMENT FOR NATURE’S HELPERS
- Given owls’ benefits to man, wildlife experts
recommend creating an environment for owls
to give them a safe haven.
“In the case of a farmer that harvests corn
or wheat, things that mice like to get into
when they’re in storage in a barn, it would be nice if there was an owl living in the barn,” wildlife biologist Marcus Johnson said. “They would want to encourage it to eat the pests.”
Also, people can build wooden structures
on their property that would allow owls to
nest. John Gruchy, of the Mississippi
Department of Wildlife and Fisheries,
said Barn owls are a species of
concern due to declining population
numbers, so a structure for them to live in is a good idea.
To learn more about making an owl house, check
out bird guides and visit owl conservation
websites.

Neat facts about the owl
- They are silent flyers.
- The circle around their eyes facilitates sound waves into the ear canal.
- The owl can look behind itself in either direction. It can turn its head 270 degrees.
- The talons of an owl can be deadly, more dangerous than a beak.
- The owl has a higher proportion of a certain reflective cell in its eye, which allows it to see
better at night.
- Owls regurgitate bones and fur.
- The owl doesn’t have a great sense of smell, so a tasty treat for the Great-horned
owl is skunk.
- The Screech owl’s call has been mistaken for that of a panther.