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Owls—General Overview

Myths, legends, and folklore portray owls as having many diverse characteristics. Some owls are thought of as wise, some are considered messengers from the gods, and others are scary birds warning of an upcoming death.

On November 16, 2001 children (and adults) around the world saw a lighter side of owls and became mesmerized by these rambunctious raptors once again. The opening of the Harry Potter movie in theatres turned thousands of new eyes toward these fascinating creatures. Unfortunately, many of these new owl-enthusiasts are not very “owl-wise”.

It is simple to understand why owls were used in the Harry Potter books and movie. After all, they can grasp scrolls with their talons, fly long distances to deliver messages, and all the while, look cute as a pet in a cage. (And what other bird is cool enough to spin its head completely around and upside down!?)

While owls seem to make the perfect pet in Harry Potter’s fictional world of wizardry and magic, they are less than perfect pets in the real world of everyday humans.

As cute as they may be, owls are not cuddly and can be very dangerous. Owls are raptors, or birds of prey, that rely on their freedom and open space so they can hunt. By keeping an owl as a pet, you are limiting its resources for food and reducing its chance of survival. Remember, when dealing with owls (and all wild animals) – look, listen, and learn. But always leave wild animals where they belong – in the wild!

Eighteen species of owls are found in North America, and eight in the Bay area: the Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl, Western Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Northern Pigmy Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl and Saw Whet Owl. Owls are able to catch their prey unaware due to their noiseless flight feathers. Owls have exceptional sight during both the daytime and at night. However, they cannot move their eyes so must turn their head to see. They also have very sensitive hearing, and use the feathers on their head to channel sounds.

Owls typically have one brood of young per year, with the brood size varying between species. Baby owls begin to fly at 6-8 weeks. Owls have a life span of 15-30 years. Barn owls are typically found near humans: in farms, warehouses, stadiums and other open structures. Barn owls are distinctive by their white, heart-shaped facial disk. They have the most acutely developed sense of hearing of all the owls.

The Burrowing Owl, which stands only 9 inches tall and weighs 1/4 pound, is at risk of disappearing from the South Bay. The type of land they prefer, open flatland with short grass, is rapidly being developed. They can often be seen standing guard in front of their burrows, and have large yellow eyes.

The Great Horned Owl and the Western Screech Owl are most commonly found in forests. Male Screech Owls feed the female while she is incubating eggs, usually in a tree cavity or nest box. They may use the same nesting cavity for seven years or more. The Great Horned Owl is the largest of the owls in this area, and has the greatest range of all North American owls.

Making a Home for Our Neighbors
Owls needing nesting sites and protection due to a significant loss of habitat. You can help by setting up nesting boxes for different owl species. Nest-boxes can be homemade or purchased. Instructions for building or purchasing a nest-box are available at the Owl Network Resource Page. Nesting boxes should be placed in locations similar to the owls’ natural habitat, and should have drainage holes and sawdust in the bottom.

Options for Owl lovers

If you are an owl lover, don’t keep an owl as a pet. Try some of these options instead:

  • Build or buy a nesting box to attract owls to your area. They are fun to watch and will help reduce your rodent population as well.
  • Listen to the sounds they make: Share your experiences with others.
  • Read about owls: Do research on the internet or at your local library.
  • Collect owl artwork or figurines: Keep the live ones in the wild where they belong.
  • Volunteer at the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley: You never know when an owl might come through our doors. Help rehabilitate and release owls with the help of highly trained individuals.

What to do if You Find an Orphaned or Injured Owl
If you are positive an owl is orphaned (watch for a couple days before deciding) or it is clearly injured, do not keep it as a pet or try to rehabilitate on your own. Instead, follow these steps to help an owl in need:

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