While millions prepare to tune in to the Big Game, take a moment to find out more about the beautiful owl species that live close to you in the TVA region — the superb owl, if you will.
Owls are gifted hunters and are popular in legends, stories and superstitions. Ancient beliefs about the “wise old owl” linger to this day. Damien Simbeck, TVA Natural Resources project manager and expert birdwatcher, shares what makes these raptors so interesting.
Owls have large, round eyes that can see in three dimensions, like human eyes, and theirs weigh as much as our own. However, they aren’t shaped like ours. They are tubular, and function like a pair of binoculars, allowing the bird to see in extremely low light. They don’t turn like human eyes, which is why owls can rotate their highly flexible necks up to 270 degrees to see the scene all around them.
There are more than 225 owl species in the world, but in the Southeastern United States, the most common ones are the great horned owl (the largest); the barred owl (most populous); and the screech owl (the smallest). Barn owls are also present in this part of the country, but are elusive and hard to spot. In fact, all owls tend to be elusive and hard to spot.
“If you want to see an owl, you need to use your ears more than your eyes,” said Simbeck. “Learn their different calls, then listen carefully for those calls at the edge of wooded land, especially around twilight when they are waking up and beginning to hunt.”
Different owl species prefer slightly different environments, but according to Simbeck, wooded areas that border open grassland are especially attractive to them. Owls like to nest in hollow spaces in dead trees, and can also be found along rivers where the hunting is good. TVA’s careful management of vegetation diversity helps protect the habitat of these raptors along with all other species of birds native to the land.
“We don’t want too many acres of just grassland, or just hardwood forest,” explained Simbeck. “The best thing TVA does for birds of all kinds is to maintain a healthy mix of hardwoods, evergreens, shrub growth and grassland on our public lands, because nesting and migrating birds really need that diversity of habitat and food.”
Owls’ beaks are short, curved and hook-shaped, making it easy to grip prey. Their strong talons allow them to grab mice and other small creatures even in mid-flight. Serrated edges on their wing feathers help cut noise, making them hard to hear as they approach.
Because they prefer a diet of rodents, owls are desirable for rodent control. A large owl can eat three or four mice or cotton rats in a day.
“Without predators to hunt them, any type of prey can flourish out of control,” said Simbeck. “That’s why owls are so beneficial to the environment. If you see one, don’t disturb it; they are easily frightened off by bright light like a camera flash.”
To encourage owls to nest on your property, you can try placing barn owl boxes or wood duck boxes. But owls are shy and nomadic, so whether they discover their new digs will be up to chance.
TVA has taken steps to make its lands attractive to avian life as part of its environmental stewardship. As a result, many of TVA’s developed and undeveloped lands have become must-see destinations for birdwatching.