Just imagine – you are hiking across a field at night with a full moon at your back when you hear a piercing scream in the distance. As your heart rate elevates, you look around and see a white figure, shining bright against the nighttime sky, hovering in the distance. If you listen closely, you can’t even hear it as it flies away. As shaken up as you are, you continue to hike past an abandoned building where you see through the broken window another white figure flash by. Sounds like a classic ghost story, right?
Ghost stories are a fundamental part of Halloween. Modern science has helped create a connection between the ghost stories we know and love and owls. In many cultures around the world, owls can signify anything from heralds of death to purveyors of knowledge. Owls have been around for a long time, with the oldest fossil that can be assigned to an owl at 60 million years old, which dwarfs Homo sapiens at 300,000 years old.
Many owl species hunt primarily at night and have the ability of near silent flight to hunt their prey. In the United States there are an estimated 19 species of owls ranging from the tiny Elf Owl to the ‘Gray Ghost’ or the Great Gray Owl. The Barn Owl can be found on every continent except Antarctica and primarily hunts rodents. They inhabit cavities ranging from snags to barns and can often nest near human habitation. Their shrill scream and white plumage have contributed to many ghost stories and active research is underway about their influence in myth and lore. Their haunting call and behavior have led to nicknames such as the ’ghost owl’ or ‘hobgoblin owl’.
Barn Owls are key in helping control rodent populations and their populations are in decline in various parts of the United States. Main causes of mortality are due to car collisions, habitat loss, and rodenticide use. We can help by refraining from throwing trash out of our car which attracts mice to the road. Slowing down at night while driving helps give the owls time to get out of the road. Building nest boxes and leaving up snags provides housing for these birds and refraining from using rodenticide keeps their food source safe. If you do have a rodent issue, using a snap trap or a live trap can help control these populations. Similarly, keeping your cats indoors removes an artificial predator from their habitat.
As Halloween approaches, it’s important to remember the small changes we can make to ensure that these owls continue to inspire ghost stories and don’t become a ghost in our memories. Happy Owloween from Teton Raptor Center!