Fly by night
Follow us on our quest to see and hear these elusive nocturnal predators.
ON A LATE SPRING AFTERNOON, Emily and I drive west from Nashville up into the hills outside of town. The Fiat bumps and jostles as the pitted gravel road up Jackson Branch Ridge throws stones at the bottom of the car.
Finally, we park behind the Indiana Raptor Center van. On a rear-window decal, the yellow eyes of great horned owl stare at us. We try to maintain traction on a drive that’s steep enough to make us engage the emergency brake. Laura Edmunds walks down the porch steps wearing a denim button-up with the center’s logo on the breast pocket and a dark “Bazinga” shirt underneath.
I reach out my hand to introduce myself, but Laura interrupts.
“Oh, you probably do not want to do that,” she says. I follow her eyes to the blue bucket in her hand, filled with dead mice and rats.
We follow Laura, the center’s vice president, along a pathway that leads to the back of building. A cacophony of hoots and screeches begins. The raptors know what time it is.
Laura shows us several wooden enclosures that are still partially boarded up from the winter before we arrive at one that’s separate from the main building. We stand beside a small viewing window that allows us to see inside. While Laura talks to Ranger, a red shoulder hawk, in the first half of the enclosure, we hear movement in the next room over. Peering through the screen, we see the camouflaged back of a barred owl.
It’s our first contact with a living owl since our journey to find these raptors of the night began a few weeks earlier.
“Can I come in there with you?” Emily asks.
OWLS HAVE FASCINATED PEOPLE people since the beginning of time. Throughout history, they have been the source of myth and legend. Now, book series like Harry Potter and Guardians of Ga’Hoole have ignited even more interest. We associate owls with wisdom, mystery and magic. Maybe it’s their elusiveness, their haunting nocturnal calls or their extraordinary eyes. These raptors are known for their mastery in camouflage, yet people sign up for owl prowls in state parks and recreation areas to try to spot them in their natural habitats.
Eight of the 20 owl species in the United States can be found right here in Southern Indiana. Half of them are migratory, and the other four – the great horned owl, barred owl, barn owl and eastern screech owl – are year-round residents. They live in hollowed-out trees and vintage barns. Now and then, you’ll hear them calling at dusk. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to spot. You need to know when to go, where to look and how to listen. And, frankly, you need a little luck.
We set out on a journey to learn about our native owls and, with a little good fortune, to hear and see one in the wild.
OUR JOURNEY BEGINS at a Candlelight Owl Hike led by naturalist Jill Vance at the Fairfax State Recreation Area on Lake Monroe. We were apprehensive. Emily had been on owl walks before and never seen a feather or heard a hoot.
While the group waits for the last few arrivals, the sun slips out of the sky. What had been an unusually warm February day turns dark and chilly. Before the walk, Jill gives a short talk about barred owls then explains how she will alternate between telling us about the owls and calling them with a set of speakers.
As the last rays of sunlight fade, each member receives a small electric-candle lantern. Then we set off across the field. Grass and twigs snap under our feet before we make it to a gravel path near the trees. The light from the lanterns does little to illuminate the path in front of us; we only have the faint light of the moon through the clouds to guide us.
Vance asks us to remain as quiet as possible so as not to scare off the owls. She shows us how to enhance our hearing by cupping our hands behind our ears and remaining extremely still. The group is eerily quiet, adding to the mystery of the evening.
We move slowly, stopping every few minutes to try the call in different location. Each time the call dies in the air, we strain our ears and hardly dare to breathe lest we miss a faint reply.
But no owls are seen or heard that night – at least not real ones.
As a consolation prize, Jill gathers everyone in a loose circle in the middle of the field. She demonstrates how to make an owl call. “I can’t get the little warble they do at the end,” she says. “The general call is ‘Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?’”
The night air fills with owl calls as we all pitch in with our own variations. Next time, we’ll be prepared.
OWLS, beloved companions and messengers in the Harry Potter books, have permeated modern culture. But that series is known for turning traditional ideas about witches and witchcraft on its head, says Moira Marsh, collection manager and librarian for anthropology, comparative literature, folklore and sociology at Indiana University.
Owls definitely have a checkered past, she says. As with most folklore, the symbolism and beliefs surrounding owls are contradictory, especially when it comes to matters of luck.
"For the ancient Greeks, owls were a good thing. A small owl was associated with the goddess Athena, who was the goddess of wisdom and the iconic goddess associated with Athens,” Marsh says.
However, when Rome supplanted Athens, owls were often seen as an omen of death, especially when sighted in the daytime. “It was the ancient Romans who connected owls with witches,” Marsh says. “There are two words in Latin for owl, one is bubo which is still used in a lot of scientific names for owls. The other is strix. The word strix could mean owl or witch – it is the same word.”
Owl eyes are a common motif because they are the first thing you notice, Marsh says. “Owls have big eyes, so we figure they must be able to see well. Seeing and knowing and understanding are the same thing. If you know all things and understand them, then you must be wise.”
In many cultures, an owl call is a sign of bad luck – someone will die or something bad will happen. More obscure lore says that placing the eyes or feathers from an owl in a sleeping woman’s hand will make her spill her secrets. The logic is if owls know all, they can get people to tell all.
Maybe that’s why they are so fascinating to us. They are so “other,” they move silently, and they have large luminescent eyes that can still see in the dark when our eyes are useless.
AT THE RAPTOR CENTER, Laura opens the door just wide enough for Emily to squeeze in. Ranger the hawk squawks, demanding Laura’s attention. Emily positions herself in the opposite corner near Skipper, a barred owl, and snaps some pictures. In the wild, the red shoulder hawk and the barred owl often share a habitat. The hawk hunts during the day, the owl at night. But at the center, they eat meals at the same time.
The Indiana Raptor Center is a non-profit organization focused on the rehabilitation of injured or orphaned raptors, like eagles, hawks and owls. The center, which opened in 2004, relies on people calling in to report injured birds of prey. In 2016, they handled 78 owls with concussions, eye injuries and broken wings, caused mostly by car strikes. For these types of injuries, the center's success rate for releasing the birds back into the wild is about 50 to 55 percent, says President Patti Reynolds.
Once an injured bird arrives at the center, the staff evaluates the raptor from head to toe. Volunteers give fluids for dehydration and medications for shock before treating any injuries or visiting the vet. The center also raises nestlings and juveniles, which they teach to hunt over the summer. After they grow or recover, the patients are, if possible, released into the wild.
However, not all rehabilitated patients can be released. Young owls found before the age of 6 months are at risk for becoming imprinted on humans as their source of food. It’s illegal to let mal-imprinted owls back into the wild, says Domonic Potorti, an educator at the center.
On our visit to the center a few weeks later, Potorti handles Mowgli, a female great horned owl. As a baby still wet from the egg, she was found by another rehabber and imprinted on him. Since the rehabber didn’t have a foster owl to raise her, Mowgli retains a lot of baby characteristics, like making young-owl begging noises.
When Mowgli came to the center, she imprinted on Potorti and thinks of him as her mate, possibly because he looks or sounds like the man who found her. Their bond is evident when he calms her down by pulling her closer to his body, not something you would do with a wild owl.
On this afternoon, the sun pours in the gaps between the wood boards of Mowgli’s enclosure. Potorti sits with his back straight, and Mowgli, with leather straps called jesses wrapped around each leg, perches on his left hand. Her golden eyes stay on us for only a minute before she looks back at Potorti.
Trust is a big part of the relationship between any handler and an animal, Potorti says. Mowgli has had many opportunities to harm him but hasn’t. Once he was getting her out of her cage at an educational event and noticed one of her jesses had broken. One foot was on his leather glove, but the other was on his bare arm. “I felt Mowgli realize that underneath her foot felt different,” Potorti says. “She moved it, but she could have caused me serious nerve damage.”
Mowgli and the other “ambassadors” at the center go into the community on visits. The center focuses on education so people will realize the economic value of protecting the birds, Reynolds says. On farms, raptors are a source of natural rodent control. If a farm has falcons hunting during the day and screech owls hunting during the night, the farm could save up to $375 a day, she says.
“Wildlife is part of the world we live in,” Reynolds says. “If you start to pull one thread, then it all starts to come undone.”
EMILY AND I are both getting a little discouraged about finding owls at this point. But on a spring weekend, Emily is leading a 10-mile hike and camping trip through Morgan-Monroe State Forest carrying a 50-pound pack on her back. When the hike finally ends and she sets up camp, the air is growing progressively colder so she heads to bed early. Getting comfortable isn’t easy when it’s below zero, and she dozes off only to shiver awake 30 seconds later.
Finally 1 a.m. rolls around and her fellow leaders unzip the tent and slip inside. They chat amiably as they get ready for bed. Suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, Emily hears a low call outside the tent and silences everyone.
“I think that was an owl call,” she says. Over muffled expressions of disbelief the telltale ‘WHO-COOKS-FOR-YOU, WHO-COOKS-FOR-YOU-ALL’ call comes again. She answers the call through cupped hands to make it sound more owlish. Seconds later, the call is returned again by a barred owl in the trees above the tent. They exchange calls for a few minutes before letting the feathered wonder get on with its nightly hunt.
BARRED OWLS like the one Emily heard that night are fairly common in Southern Indiana’s woods. Owl populations are difficult to estimate because of the birds’ elusiveness, but about 20,000 barred owls lived in Indiana in 2013, according to Partners in Flight, a network of organizations focused on bird conservation. The great horned owl population was estimated at 17,000 and the eastern screech owl population at 11,000. However, not all species are thriving.
Barn Owls are endangered here, and only 10 barn owl nests were reported to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in 2015. Naturalists says the population decrease could be caused by barns being torn down, abandoned or repurposed. More people keep machinery in barns now, and owls need the warmth of other animals as a source of heat.
Although barn owls are endangered, the population has been stable, says Amy Kearns, a nongame bird biologist for the DNR. Kearns works on the barn owl nest project, which builds boxes for barn owls on privately owned land.
They seek out habitat with fallow farm fields and pastures that aren’t overgrown but have voles, mice and rats. The boxes provide a nesting place free of predators like raccoons. “As chicks grow, they tend to fall out of nests that are on ledges while they jostle with food,” Kearns says. “They usually break a leg and end up dying.”
Kearns tries to set up the nest boxes where owls are already roosting so they have an excellent chance of moving into them.
ON ANOTHER SPRING EVENING, we set out for Morgan-Monroe State Forest, where Emily had heard the barred owl, to look for these canny birds on our own. We miss a turn and have to backtrack until we find the Low Gap trailhead about 8:40 p.m. By this time it’s so dark that Emily uses a headlamp, and I use her phone’s flashlight.
We walk along the muddy trail that’s riddled with branches and tree roots. I almost slip several times before we reach a campsite and stop to call the owls. Emily cups her hands around her mouth and calls into the trees, “WHO-COOKS-FOR-YOU, WHO-COOKS-FOR-YOU-ALL.” She calls twice more, then pulls up the recordings on her phone and plays them three times.
We stand there, hopeful, and wait quietly for a couple of minutes. Emily tries again, but the silence is broken only by our breathing.
We hike farther up the trail and try again. We hear a faint echo of her call, but no owl replies. We try for another 10 minutes, then decide we should just come back another night.
We hike back down the trail to the car. Emily opens her trunk to put her bag and camera away while I wipe the mud off my rain boots and then open the passenger door.
“Wait, did you hear that?” I whisper to Emily, who is already sitting in the car.
She sits silently, thinking it might be the call of a coyote. Emily cups her hands and calls, “WHO-COOKS-FOR-YOU, WHO-COOKS-FOR-YOU-ALL.” She grabs her phone to play the calls.
I slide my backpack off my shoulder, pretty sure my mind had played a trick on me.
Then, off in the distance, somewhere along Low Gap trail, a barred owl calls back. Hoo-aw!
Emily calls and plays the recording again, but we get no response.
“Did we lose it?” Emily asks.
“I think so,” I say.
“That’s it, that’s it, that’s it!” Emily whispers.
She points at the sky as a barred owl flies over the parking lot. We lose sight of it as it reaches the canopy of trees.
We lock eyes over the top of the Fiat.
“Does that count?” Emily says.
“Yes, that counts,” I say.
We try calling out to the barred owl again and wait patiently for a while.
“I think we’re done.” Emily says and sits in the driver's seat.
My eyes are still locked onto the night sky when the barred owl flies back across the parking lot, disappearing into the obscurity of the tree canopy and the starless night sky.
Meet our owls
Here’s an introduction to the four owls that live in Southern Indiana.
Great Horned Owl
The largest of Indiana’s owls have a wing span of up to nearly 5 feet. They have rounded faces with yellow eyes and black bills surrounded by white or tan feathers. Darker feathers sit on top of their heads like horns. Females are typically larger than males.
Habitat: forests, woodlots and along streams
Hunting Time: night
Diet: small mammals and birds
Mating: The male performs display flight and feeds the female.
Nesting: They use old nests of larger birds and lay two to three eggs that are incubated for 28-35 days.
Young: They fly around 9 to 10 weeks old.
They have gray-white rounded faces with brown eyes. Their bellies have vertical brown streaks. The average wingspan is 43 inches. Females are typically larger than males.
Habitat: woodlands, wooded river bottoms and wooded swamps
Hunting times: dawn and dusk
Diet: small mammals
Mating: The male and female bob and bow their heads with raised wings. They call in duet perched together. The male feeds the female.
Nesting: They nest in large natural hollows in trees or in old nests of hawks, crows or squirrels. They lay two to three eggs that are incubated for 28-33 days.
Young: They fly at 6 weeks old.
Their heart-shaped faces are pure white with an ivory colored beak that looks like a long nose. They have feathers down to their talons. Females are larger than males.
Habitat: woodlands, farms and barns
Hunting Times: night
Diet: rodents, specifically voles
Mating: The male performs display flight with loud wing-claps. The males feed the females.
Nesting: They nest in caves and hollow trees, but they also use artificial sites like barn lofts and nest boxes. They lay three to eight eggs that are incubated for 29-34 days.
Young: They fly at 55 to 65 days old.
Eastern Screech Owl
They are smaller than the other owls and have yellow beaks and eyes. They are either gray or reddish in color, with darker streaking on their bodies. They have large ear tufts on both sides of their head.
Habitat: woodlands, farm groves and shade trees
Hunting Times: dusk and night
Diet: large insects and small rodents
Mating: The males bow their head, raise their wings and click their bills. They feed the females. Pairs preen each other’s feathers and call in duet.
Nesting: They nest in cavities in trees, natural hollows and abandoned woodpecker holes. They also use artificial nest boxes. They lay four to five eggs that are incubated for 26 days.
Young: They leave the nest at 4 weeks old.