Visitors to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Von Arx Wildlife Viewing Pavilion are greeted by docents happy to discuss the birds that may be found throughout our area. There are several birds of prey in the large flight cages being rehabilitated after injury. Some are permanent residents that, while having recovered from their injuries, are unable to fend for themselves in the wild and cannot be released.
There you can find our owls — a barred owl, Strix varia, and on occasion one or two screech owls (Megascops asio) may be present. For many visitors, this is the first time they will see an owl up close. Most owls are active nocturnally, resting in nests or on tree branches, immobile, during the day. There are five owl species found in Southwest Florida, ranging from the largest, the great horned owl, to the smallest, the screech owl. The barred owl is the second-largest and is named for the dark vertical bars adorning their fronts. The other owls found locally are the burrowing owl and the barn owl.
Owls generally eat small mammals, principally rodents, such as mice, voles and rats. There are about 200 species of owls worldwide, and all are incredibly effective hunters. An owl can rotate its head 270°, enabling it to look behind itself. Its eyes are not actually ‘eyeballs’, but rather tubes, and are fixed in place. An owl needs to turn its head to follow you, as it can’t move its eyes.
An owl’s wing feathers are uniquely adapted for silent flight, in order to stealthily attack prey. The noise made when a bird flaps its wings results from turbulence as the air moves over the wing. Each of an owl’s primary wing feathers ends in serrations, like the teeth of a comb. This breaks the air into ‘micro turbulences’ redirecting the flow of air, which is then muffled by softer wing feathers. In addition, the large broad wings enable the owl to reduce the flapping it needs to stay aloft. These combine to make them deadly and silent night predators.
The barred owl is a generalist feeder, and, while pursuing rodents of all types, will also eat other birds, insects, fish, reptiles, crustaceans and amphibians. As with all owls, the barred owl’s eyesight is exceptional, and it can see its prey in dim light many hundreds of feet away. They live in forested areas, and nest in open cavities found in trees, or will commandeer the empty nests of Pileated Woodpeckers or other animals. Barred Owls fall prey to other predators, especially the larger great horned owl.