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Hillary Schwirtlich | Give a hoot about owls

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Pixabay photo/Pexels Owls can be hard to spot, but studying them with your kids provides a unique learning experience, says Hillary Schwirtlich, membership and education coordinator for the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust.

The other night, sitting in our living room, we heard a magical and eerie sound: the hooting of an owl. A great horned owl, to be precise — we could tell because of the pattern of the hoots! If you and your kids are lucky, maybe you have heard this same sound this winter.

Owls have long been a symbol for learning, and during this column, perhaps you and your kids will learn a few things about these hard-to-spot creatures.

A primer on owls

♦ Owls are birds of prey, which means they eat meat. Owls hunt small mammals, insects and other birds, although some also hunt fish. There are over 200 species of owls on earth, and 13 species can be found in Washington state. These owls do a great job of keeping our rodent populations in control.

♦ Owls can’t move their eyeballs in their eye sockets. Instead, they can rotate their heads 270 degrees. Owls have extra bones in their necks that allow them to do this.

♦ Owls are known for silent flight. Being able to fly silently means owls can sneak up on prey at night, grabbing their prey before it knows what’s coming. Owls have broad wings that help them float without flapping too much. But the main adaptation that helps owls fly silently is the shape of their feathers. The front edges of their feathers are serrated — they have little teeth like the teeth of a comb that muffle the sound of air moving over the wings.

Owl-y activities for kids

Go on an owl prowl. Spotting owls is usually a matter of luck. Owls usually have grey, brown and white feathers, which help them camouflage into bark. Many owls spend most of their time near trees or structures like barns. However, some, like the burrowing owl, prefer more open habitats. Listening for them can help you find out where they are. You can also look for owl pellets at the base of trees where owls like to hang out. When you do find an owl, be sure not to get too close! Owls can be very territorial, and will sometimes become aggressive.

Learn the owl hoots. Just like other birds sing, many owls hoot to claim their territory, call to their mates or locate their young owlets. Each species of owl that hoots has a different hoot, and they’re very easy to learn and tell apart using a few simple phrases. The great horned owl’s hoot is five notes long, and is often remembered as “Whooo’s awake? Me too!” The barred owl’s hoot is eight notes long, and can be described as “who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” The burrowing owl is just two notes long, and is a high pitched “Coo-coooo!” Finally, the barn owl doesn’t actually hoot at all, but instead has a high pitched, raspy “krrrriiick!” It’s easy to find recordings of these — and other sounds owls make — online.

Dissect an owl pellet. You can find these at the base of trees that owls hang out in or buy them online. They are what’s left over after an owl digests its prey and regurgitates it back up again. Pellets are often full of whole skeletons of rodents and insect shells, and it can be fun to dissect them to find out what the owls have been eating. If you find them in the wild, use gloves to pick up the pellet, and sanitize it by wrapping it in foil and cooking it in a 325 degree oven for 40 minutes before dissecting it.

Hillary Schwirtlich, membership and education coordinator for the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, loves introducing people of all ages to the beauty and wonder of North Central Washington. She writes this monthly column on low-cost and easy ways for families to spend quality time outside with their kids.