Throughout history, owls have been associated with wisdom. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, is often pictured with an owl, a fact that probably led to the burrowing owl being given the scientific (genus) name of Athene. And perhaps because most owls are nocturnal, they are also often associated with magic, which we have seen most recently in the Harry Potter stories. But even though the owl is not as clever as a crow or as magical as the owls in the Potter series, they are fascinating, beautiful birds.
They might not be common to backyard wildlife, but there is a good chance that owls do visit, or at least silently survey, your yard at night. If so, you may hear them calling. Not all owls, however, sound the same. The great horned owl makes a series of hoots, whereas the call of the barn owl is a raspy, hissing screech. The calls of western screech owls include whistles and trills. The Audubon Society notes that 10 species of owls can be found in our county and that eight of these are here year-round. Two species, short-eared owls and burrowing owls, are here mainly in winter.
Highly adapted predators, with well-camouflaged, mottled coloring, owls possess excellent hearing and night vision, can turn their heads almost completely around to spot prey, and have specially shaped wing feathers that allow them to fly virtually without a sound. The diet of little burrowing owls includes insects like crickets and dung beetles. Barn owls eat lots of gophers and mice. The great horned owl, our largest local owl, eats rodents including woodrats and may also eat skunks, fairly large birds, and occasionally even house cats.
Most owls don’t build nests, but if there are trees with cavities, old sheds, barns, or palm trees near your house, you have a better chance of seeing owls. Look for their pellets formed from the regurgitated bones, fur, and other indigestible parts of their prey. Or you can build an owl box, many of which are now familiar sights in California’s wine country, where vintners are hoping to increase owl populations in order to reduce the number of crop-damaging rodents. If you take an evening drive along Santa Rosa Road, in the famed Sta. Rita Hills appellation, you are likely to spot quite a few owls sitting on utility poles as they wait to swoop on prey between the grape vines.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to watch a family of snow-white owlets growing up in their hay bale nest. Once, on a walk in western Santa Barbara County, I ran into a burrowing owl, a species that can be active during the day. More recently, I found a beautiful great horned owl, which I had seen on a telephone wire the night before, now with a broken wing near my house. Using a pair of big leather gloves, a piece of tough shade netting, and a dog carrier, I was able to capture the bird and bring it to the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network at the very top of Fairview Avenue in Goleta. They promised to transfer the owl to the Ojai Raptor Center, where it will be released back into the wild if it can fully recover.
Great horned owls and barn owls are widely distributed throughout our county, and these species are not considered threatened, although they are affected by habitat loss in some areas. The little burrowing owl is listed as a California Bird Species of Special Concern, and, although there are still good populations in some areas, their numbers have declined due to land-use changes in parts of California. As ground squirrel burrows form important nest sites, ground squirrel eradication programs have also affected these owls.
Occasionally, at Arroyo Hondo Preserve, where I give tours to schoolchildren, we have disturbed a resting barn owl. The kids are thrilled as they watch the beautiful pale bird fly silently away through the oak woodland. The abundance of woodrats, as well as owl pellets containing what looks like woodrat hair, suggests that the preserve is also home to quite a few great horned owls. Another great way children are introduced to the birds is through the Santa Barbara Audubon Society’s Eyes in the Sky educational outreach program. Max, a rehabilitated great horned owl, and his longtime handler, Gabrielle, visit area schools where bird and humans can meet one another.
A mine of information about owls in general can be found at owlpages.com. A plan for building your own owl box can be found by downloading the PDF at independent.com/owlboxes. To learn more about our local owls, see independent.com/eyesinthesky.
Sally Isaacson, a lifelong educator and naturalist, was formerly director of education at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. She is now the volunteer and education coordinator at The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County’s wonderful Arroyo Hondo Preserve at Gaviota.