What do owls eat? What species of owl are common in our area? Why do we associate owls with Halloween? Volunteers from the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia (ACCA) answered these questions and more at their Owl-O-Ween event Saturday afternoon.
Dozens of families came to the event held at the ACCA’s outdoor classroom and education facility on Morgan Hill Road in Cheat Lake.
Executive Director Katie Fallon said the goal of the event was mainly to teach people about owls.
“There is a lot of owl stuff around Halloween,” she said. “Having an event like this actually teaches people about owls themselves – instead of just as this Halloween symbol.”
Kids were able to make owl-related crafts and participate in some hands-on learning with activities like an owl pellet dissection station.
Pellets, or the indigestible parts of food, like bones, teeth and fur that are regurgitated, are useful when tracking an owl’s behavior and eating habits.
Many different kinds of birds could be seen at the education center’s enclosure, but the real owls housed at the facility became the actual stars of the show as ACCA volunteers brought them out to give the kids an up close and personal look.
While the kids took a closer look, Dr. Jesse Fallon, co-owner of Cheat Lake Animal Hospital and ACCA board secretary and treasurer, talked about some of the special features found on owls and other birds of prey – also known as raptors.
Three examples of Eastern Screech Owls, named Randolph, H.D. and Crystal, made their way around the room as Fallon discussed how owls and most other birds of prey use their strong, sharp talons and sharp, hooked beaks to catch and eat their prey, which consists of things like rodents and birds.
Crystal was said to be the oldest education bird at ACCA at approximately 10 years old or even older since she was brought in as an adult. Fallon said Crystal has lived way past the species’ life expectancy, which is typically 3-5 years in the wild and around 8 years in captivity.
“She has done literally hundreds and hundreds of programs all around the state teaching kids about birds or prey, about conservation,” Fallon said proudly.
The Eastern Screech Owl is the most common species of raptor seen as patients at the ACCA, he said.
Owls are also known for their large eyes, which Fallon pointed out makes it easier for the nocturnal hunters to see in the dark.
The Barn Owl, which is different from the Screech Owl, was also brought out for kids to see up close.
Barn Owls, which get their name from often being found nesting in a barn, are different from other types of owl species – “It’s actually a whole different genus,” he said.
Barn Owls have the best sense of hearing in the entire animal kingdom. Fallon said they have a satellite-shaped head that helps pull sound in toward the head to amplify the sound.
Strategic positioning of their ears allows them to do what’s called triangulation – “they can actually pinpoint the precise location of a sound,” he said, which enables them to hunt in total darkness if necessary.
Another key difference is the way the owls hunt for food. Screech owls will sit and wait for their prey while Barn Owls actively hunt – circling fields methodically to find food.
“The Barn Owl – we think – may be the basis for some of our scary ghost stories,” Fallon said.
Compared to other types of owls, which we generally associate with the hoo-hoo sound, the Barn Owl makes a somewhat strange and terrifying screeching sound.
The underside of the owl’s wings are also white, so “imagine being in a dark barn in 1820 and you have your lantern and there is a big white shape [screeching] across the barn,” he said.
Katie added that this is also the time of year you might start to hear owls hooting.
“They are right now kind of developing and strengthening their pair bond – getting their territory set up,” she said, pointing out that owls are some of the first species to nest in West Virginia.
“Screech Owls – they can live right around neighborhoods, parks – they don’t mind being close to people,” she said. “So if you have a backyard – you could get a screech owl in it.”
Siblings Jennings and Darcy Foley, ages 7 and 5, said they weren’t afraid of owls and were having fun looking at the owls and learning about them.
Darcy recalled one thing she had learned about owls was “they had sharp claws.”
Katie said the ACCA plans to continue fun, educational, free events like this one now that the outdoor classroom is near completion.
“It’s great to have a space that’s just for education,” she said.