On Silent Wings: The Owls of Louisiana

By John B. Tenney Jr.

Vol. 40

May-June 1988

No. 3



Humans have long been fascinated to by owls. To Louisiana’s Tunica and Chitimacha Indians, the hooting of an owl signified impending doom or death. Use of the owl as a symbol goes back centuries before arrival of the first white men. Archeological findings at northeastern Louisiana’s Poverty Point site confirm the existence of a culture which flourished and declined in the interval from 1200 B.C. to 200 B.C. Among the distinguishing features of this culture are the sophisticated stone polishing skills which linked them to cultures in Central America. These early Louisianians worked a variety of stones into polished amulets, charms, and plummets, many of which were shaped to resemble owls. This recurrent owl motif was sufficiently strong to enable archeologists, who found similar stone owls in Florida, to link the distant cultures to Poverty Point. In Louisiana, interest in the owl dates far into the past.


The interest continues today. At Tensas National Wildlife Refuge, not far from Poverty Point, ornithologist Dr. Robert Hamilton, professor at LSU’s School of Fisheries, Forestry and Wildlife, is studying long term changes in resident owl populations. He uses recorded calls of barred owls and screech owls to elicit responses from roosting owls as he traverses a route of roadside stations. At Tensas, the most common owls are barred owls and screech owls, with barn owls and great horned owls being less common. Occasionally, visitors from the north, short-eared and long-eared owls, may appear. On good nights, Dr. Hamilton may hear three different owls within three minutes at any given stop. This relates to an owl every quarter mile along his base route.


You don’t have to be an expert bird water to identify owls. Distinctive characteristics make them easily recognizable. Primary features enabling identification include large round eyes, common in all raptors or birds of prey, flat, somewhat dish-shaped faces, and upright, vertical postures. The owl’s eyes are well adapted for night hunting and its vision is significantly better than that of humans. At the same time, owls have little ability to move their eyes and must rely on turning the entire head. This capability is well developed and an owl can move its neck almost 270 degrees. It can also rotate its head from side to side, making one eye appear above the other. The owl’s beak, usually partially concealed by soft, downy facial feathers, is shorter and less powerful than that of eagles and hawks; consequently, it is less able to dissect its prey. It compensates for this lack of ability by bolting its food intact. Undigested remains of prey cannot be passed and the bones, claws, teeth feathers, beaks and other indigestible remains of its meal are regurgitated in the form of “owl pellets” or “cough balls.”


Other owl characteristics are less easily observed. Hearing is well developed as vision. Large, forwarded-facing ears are concealed behind facial feathers and are unrelated to the horns or tufts used as camouflage by some species. Ability to focus sound is enhanced by the shape of the facial disk, which acts as a reflector to focus sound waves. Under facial feathers the owl’s ears are asymmetrical, both in size and placement, an adaptation believed to significantly enhance ability to locate prey. The outer toe of most owls is reversible allowing them to perch with two toes in front, a capability they share with woodpeckers and parrots. On the ground, they walk rather than hop.


Barred owls, screech owls, great horned owls and barn owls are found year-round in Louisiana. Winter visitors include the short-eared owl and the long-eared owl. In Louisiana’s southwestern corner and along the Gulf Coast, the ground-dwelling burrowing owl is a non-breeding visitor. Their call is easily remembered by the phrase, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” This sound is easy to learn and to produce, even without an owl call. Because owls occasionally prey on wild turkey poults, turkey hunters sometimes use owl calls to provoke wild turkeys into gobbling and revealing themselves.


Barred owls are large birds, ranging between 17 and 24 inches in height when mature.



Uncommon Owls

Louisiana Features 10 Species Of Owls But Six Are Considered Uncommon Or Rare In The State

by Robert Dobbs and Trey Iles, LDWF


You’d figure that, with the ample amount of prey available in Louisiana, owls would have a strong foothold in the state. Indeed, there are 10 species of owls that have been documented and verified to occur in Louisiana and most state residents have actually seen the birds even though they are nocturnal and secretive.


If you have seen one, chances are it was probably either the barn owl, eastern screech-owl, great horned owl or the barred owl. They are common and occur in the state year round.


But six are considered uncommon or rare in Louisiana. The burrowing owl is considered rare but regular and the short-eared owl is deemed uncommon. The other four are labeled exceptionally rare, including the flammulated owl, the snowy owl, the long-eared owl and the northern saw-whet owl. Greater study and observance would be helpful in determining just how rare these species are in Louisiana.


Here’s a thumbnail look at these six owls which aren’t as frequently seen in Louisiana as the former four:


Short-eared Owl

  • An open-country owl, typically occurring in tundra, marsh, and grassland, habitats, as well as fallow agricultural fields.
  • Migratory across large range throughout northern hemisphere, breeding in mid-upper latitudes and wintering farther south.
  • Winters in Louisiana, most commonly in rice fields and marsh habitats.
  • Throughout its range, including Louisiana, often occurs along with with the northern harrier, a diurnal hawk, or marsh hawk.
  • Populations declining in North America.


Burrowing Owl

  • A charismatic bird of the prairies of the western Great Plains, as well as other open habitats in intermountain western North America.
  • Elsewhere in the bird’s range and in habitats not hosting burrowing mammals, burrowing owls often use manmade shelters like culverts and pipes.
  • Unique among North American owls, burrowing owls are active both day and night, and are thus the most likely species of owl to be active during daylight hours.
  • Rarely occurs in Louisiana, but shows up occasionally during spring and fall migration and the winter; dates range September - May.
  • Burrowing owls have occurred in many locales in Louisiana, but typically occur on the coast itself - on the beach or among beach dunes of headlands and barrier islands
  • Frequency of occurrences in Louisiana have decreased over the past 40 years, similar to the species’ overall population decline throughout its North American range over the same time period.


Flammulated Owl

  • Another species of western North America, the flammulated owl is a bird of the mountains, breeding primarily in mature ponderosa pine forest from southern British Columbia south into northwestern Mexico.
  • Flammulated owl is a small, primarily insectivorous owl, closely related to screech-owls.
  • Migration in flammulated owl is poorly understood, and records of vagrant individuals during fall in Louisiana represent intriguing anecdotal information related to its migration biology.
  • There are four verified Louisiana occurrences, including the first found near Baton Rouge in January.


Snowy Owl

  • This large, nearly all-white owl is one of the most distinctive owls in the world and an icon of the arctic, with a circumpolar breeding range.
  • Migration ecology of snowy owls is poorly understood. Some owls remain on or near their arctic breeding grounds during the winter, while some, probably mostly young birds, migrate south.
  • There is only one documented record of a naturally-occurring snowy owl in Louisiana, from Shreveport in Dec. 1976 - Feb. 1977.


Long-eared Owl

  • In North America, long-eared owl occupies a band across central Canada, and throughout much of the western U.S.
  • Migration ecology is poorly understood; the degree of migration and, hence, the species’ winter distribution varies among years, presumably due to food availability, weather, and possibly other factors.
  • The species rarely occurs as far south as the Gulf states.
  • In addition to a handful of inadequately described, undocumented, and/or unreviewed records, the Louisiana Bird Records Committee, a committee of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, has endorsed nine long-eared owl records in Louisiana based on evaluation of documentation and/or detailed descriptions of birds.
  • Those records range from November to March and have spanned the four corners of the state.


Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • A common species that occurs in forest habitats across southern Canada and the northern United States, as well as montane areas of the western United States.
  • The single, currently verified record for Louisiana is a specimen found dead on a road in Natchitoches Parish in January 1978.
  • Three or four additional records exist, but were not documented, preserved, or described adequately enough for expert endorsement, or have not yet been reviewed by the Louisiana Bird Records Committee.
  • Intriguingly, nocturnal banding efforts in northwestern Arkansas and in central Alabama have recently revealed that the species is a regular winter visitor in those areas, raising the question: might the species also occur more than we think in, say, the Kisatchie National Forest or other upland, forested areas in Louisiana during the winter months?


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