Take a short walk around Patagonia, and you are bound to see birders. People with binoculars gazing up at the trees, attention fully captured by some captivating flying creature. Patagonia and the Madrean Sky Islands region are well known for being home to hundreds of species of birds, with over 500 observed in any given year. Of these many species, it is much harder to appreciate the nocturnal variety. Luckily for you and us, our trail cameras within the Borderlands Wildlife Preserve frequently capture images of some of the most beautiful and mysterious birds - owls.
Owls make up the order of birds called Strigiformes. There are approximately 250 species of owls worldwide. Most owls are nocturnal, have stocky bodies, round heads, and large forward-facing eyes. Those round heads and forward-facing eyes are similar to our own faces and possibly why some of us, myself included, find them irresistibly cute. Owls inhabit every continent on earth except Antarctica. To date, the BWP wildlife cameras have captured three species of owls, the Great Horned owl, Barn owl, and Western Screech owl.
The Barn owl, Tyto alba, is a medium-sized owl with a worldwide range and 35 individual races with distinct characteristics depending on location. The North American Barn owl, Tyto alba pratincole, is the largest of the barn owls, comparable to a crow's size. Barn owls are strictly nocturnal and mostly prey upon small mammals. Barn owls are famous in the animal world for having the best-known hearing in existence. Researchers have determined that barn owls can successfully capture prey in one hundred percent darkness using sound alone. This unique adaptation allows barn owls to avoid hunting at similar night times to their natural predator, the Great Horned owl.
The Great Horned owl, Bubo virginianus, is found in almost every habitat in North America. Reaching a height of two feet and a weight of two to three pounds, it is one of the biggest owls worldwide. Great Horned owls can only lift their body weight, making most of their prey small animals such as rodents and snakes. Rumors that Great Horned owls eat dogs and cats are generally untrue since they are usually far too heavy for the owl to carry away.
Western Screech owls, Megascops kennicottii, range from southern Mexico to northern Canada. This little owl is similar in size to a robin with a stocky body, short ear tufts, and a short tail. They can be a grayish or reddish-brown color. Their eyes are large and yellow. Preferring elevations under six thousand feet, these owls can be found in wooded or semi-open habitats, including mesquite bosques and saguaro stands.
Western Screech owls make a “tooting” sound, and the screech name comes from the Eastern Screech owl call. Like all owls, they are carnivores or insectivores preying on a variety of small rodents, insects, and sometimes animals larger than themselves, such as rabbits. Western Screech owls depend on dead or hollow trees, or saguaros, to nest in and are thought to be in decline due to habitat loss.
There are believed to be thirteen species of owls in Arizona. Each with its own unique qualities and survival challenges. All owls, like many animal species, face loss of habitat from climate change and human development. Owls hold a special cultural significance for most human societies as well. Be it an omen of good or bad, they hold our attention as something special to be recognized. Having the opportunity to share these images with you feels special as well, and we hope you feel inspired to learn more about the owls in our region and at the BWP.