Owls of North America

Owls of North AmericaOwls of North America delves into the lives of these enigmatic and fascinating birds of prey, shedding light on their anatomy, adaptations, life history and ecology. The engaging text is enhanced by line drawings and numerous colour photos. Individual profiles of the 23 owl species found in Canada, the U.S. and northern Mexico include detailed information about appearance, voice, feeding, breeding, distribution, habitat and conservation, as well as range maps. Like Woodpeckers of North America, this is a solid reference for birders, naturalists and general readers. Published by Firefly Books, 2008.

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From the Introduction: Owls and Humans

From ancient myth to Harry Potter, owls hold an enduring place in the human imagination. In some cultures they are revered, in others, feared. And for every superstition that associates owls with good fortune, a dozen more link them to mortality, sickness or evil. A small sample of the hundreds of legends, beliefs and customs that invoke owls gives a sense of the prominent and diverse roles in which these birds have been cast.

On the positive side, Aboriginal tradition in some parts of Australia holds that owls guard women’s souls, and women are directed to look after their female kin by protecting owls. In South America pygmy-owls are kept as cage birds because they are believed to bring their owners luck and success in love. The Ainu people of northern Japan considered Blakiston’s eagle-owl to be a divine ancestor and would drink a toast to it before setting out on hunting expeditions. In other parts of Asia owls were also honored as divine ancestors and were attributed with helping to ward off evil spirits, famine and pestilence. Greek mythology links the goddess of wisdom, Athene, to owls, and this connection is commemorated in the name of the genus to which the burrowing owl belongs.

Associations between owls and death are prominent, widespread and sometimes very specific. In the southwestern United States, Pima Indian custom dictates that a feather molted by a living owl be placed in the hand of a dying person so that the owl can safely guide that person on the journey from life to death. In Sicily the Eurasian scops-owl is a messenger of death; its call near the house of sick man announces that he will die within three days. For the Zapotec people of southern Mexico, the barn owl delivers the bad news and fetches the soul of the deceased. The Chinese speak more generically of owl calls as “digging the grave.” In Louisiana, Cajuns whose sleep was disturbed by the calling of eastern screech-owls used to turn their left shoe upside down or their left trouser pocket inside out to cancel this ill omen.

The scientific nomenclature of owls reflects historical European connections between owls and sorcery. The Greek word for witch, strix, is used to name one genus and its Latin derivative, striga, names the order Strigiformes, to which all owls belong. Owls are also associated with witchcraft in other parts of the world. Such beliefs are strong and persistent in many parts of Africa, resulting in a significant number of owl killings. Similarly, the persecution of stygian owls in Hispaniola arises from superstitions about these owls transforming themselves into witches.

The earliest known depictions of owls are found in caves in southwestern France and date back to the Upper Paleolithic period, 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. The ear tufts on an owl painted on a wall in the Crotte Chauvet cave suggest an eagle-owl or long-eared owl. In the Trois Frères cave the etched outline of a pair of snowy owls and their young recalls a time when this species occurred much farther south than it does today. A number of Australian caves also harbor ancient paintings of owls, the work of early Aboriginal artists.

Other evidence that humans have long been enthralled by these birds includes the mummified remains of barn owls in ancient Egyptian tombs. The Egyptians also used owl symbols in their hieroglyphics, as did the Mayans. Among the oldest written documents that make reference to owls are the Bible and Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, and, somewhat later, the works of Shakespeare.


Historically, owls have not fared well at the hands of humans. Because of their alleged supernatural powers, their body parts have often been used in folk medicines and magic rituals. Some traditions, such as the widespread African custom of eating owl’s eyes to improve night vision, have obvious origins, but others are more obscure. In Morocco suspicious husbands or fathers were advised to place the right eye of a Eurasian eagle-owl in the hand of a sleeping wife or daughter so that she would truthfully report on her daytime activities. Pliny, however, suggested laying the heart of a “screech owl” (the species now known as the barn owl) on the left side of a sleeping woman to induce her to reveal her own heart’s secrets.

Pliny also offered a recipe to treat heavy bleeding that required boiling a barn owl in oil, then adding ewe’s-milk butter and honey. In Yorkshire, England, owl soup was at one time prescribed as a remedy for whooping cough, while in Poland rheumatism was said to be cured by burning owl feathers over a charcoal fire or eating baked owl. In Uruguay burrowing owl is traditionally served to convalescents to stimulate their appetite. Chinese traditional medicine makes extensive use of owl body parts, and many owls are still killed in Asia to meet the demand.

Culinary traditions that treat owls simply as food are less common. In North America the species most commonly eaten for nourishment in the past was probably the snowy owl, which some Inuit hunters still take as game. John James Audubon sampled the meat of a snowy owl that he had dissected for scientific purposes and declared it to be “not disagreeable eating.” Great gray owls were reportedly trapped for food by some northern Native peoples.

With the colonization of North America by Europeans, owl mortality increased greatly. Most settlers had little interest in eating owls, but they didn’t hesitate to kill them. As biologist Arthur Cleveland Bent noted in 1937, “Owls have few enemies except man; unfortunately they are usually shot on sight, because they are big and are picturesque as mounted specimens, or because they are supposed to destroy game and domestic poultry.”

While education and legal prohibitions have largely put an end to the intentional killing of owls in North America, humans continue to exert a negative influence on many of the continent’s species, with habitat destruction being the number-one cause of population declines. Some North American owls, including the great horned and the mottled, seem to be fairly tolerant of the changes humans have wrought upon the landscape over the past century, and a few species have expanded into new territory, apparently in response to habitat modifications. But even as the barred owl and the western screech-owl spread into new areas, there are hints that their numbers are dropping within their original range.

The majority of owl species in North America have a more restricted distribution and smaller populations than they did a hundred years ago. Among those whose situation is most critical are the burrowing owl, the ferruginous pygmy-owl and the spotted owl. In each case the greatest threat to the species’ long-term survival is loss of vital habitat. Whether the cause is industrial logging or urban sprawl, the conversion of grasslands to croplands or the damming and diversion of rivers, the end result is the same: a place that was once a welcoming home is no longer habitable.

Ultimately, whether we can maintain the continent’s full diversity of owl species and subspecies will depend on our knowledge of their particular ecological requirements and our willingness to accommodate those needs. Individuals who want to play a role in owl conservation can get involved in a number of ways. For many cavity-nesting owls, nest boxes are a satisfactory substitute for natural cavities or old woodpecker nest holes. Barn owls are especially dependent on humans to provide housing. If you have suitable habitat on your property you can put up an owl box or two at home. Or you can sign up with one of the many programs that rely on volunteers to build, erect and maintain nest boxes. Other opportunities for members of the public to contribute to owl research include reporting sightings (for example, through www.ebird.org), participating in Christmas bird counts or other surveys, and helping with banding efforts such as those that have been so central to revealing the mysteries of northern saw-whet owl migration.

Above all, you can get to know these enigmatic birds better, moving beyond myth and superstition to a deeper understanding of the fascinating realities of their lives.

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Chicago Tribune-City: “Wildlife author Frances Backhouse’s well-researched and informative book helps us get closer to these haunting and often misunderstood birds.”

Birdfreak.com: “…a stunning, photo-loaded book … appealing for anyone that loves owls. The text, while not simple, is definitely readable for younger audiences (pre-teen and up). It was hard to keep our 10-year-old niece (Sammie) from running off with the book.”

January Magazine: “Readers with an interest in owls will simply not find a better book than respected science and environment writer Frances Backhouse’s Owls of North America. … The book is large and handsome, suitable for coffee table adornment, but don’t let it spend too much time there.