Who Gives a Hoot?

Published on September 21, 2015
Written by Ray Access

Appalachian owls are a mystifying breed.

When asked about owls, most people mention the easily recognizable soft cooing heard at dawn or dusk. Others describe the wide-open pair of golden yellow eyes the birds possess or their ability to turn their heads 180 degrees. But aside from nature shows, most people who live in or visit Appalachia won’t get to know these mysterious birds nearly as well as other animals.


Owls aren’t exactly social creatures. Don’t expect them to visit during your picnic or perch on your porch waiting for table scraps. Owls keep to themselves, like their Appalachian neighbors in the hollow. Family-oriented, adult owls care for their parents and babies with a devotion that borders on obsessive. Feeding and tending the family matter more to them than anything else.

The Mystery Deepens

Owls inhabit every country in the world, with the exception of Antarctica. Breeds commonly found in the Appalachian Mountains include the Eastern Screech Owl, the Common Barn Owl, the Great Horned Owl and the Barred Owl.

All owls have a certain mystique, in part because people and owls typically keep opposite hours. Owls are nocturnal — they sleep during the day and arise at dusk. Then, like many humans, they spend several hours preening, plucking and otherwise beautifying themselves to prepare for their “day” ahead, which is kind of narcissistic since they spend most of their waking time alone.

Their solitary nature adds to their mystery. Owls don’t invite just anyone to their roosts. And although they are rarely aggressive outside of hunting, they can be downright inhospitable if someone, like another owl, encroaches on their territory. This aggressiveness is especially pronounced if they have eggs or babies in the roost.

Not So Warm and Fuzzy

Impressive hunters, owls can immobilize most of their prey with their muscular grip. Their beaks are small, but like their talons pack a powerful wallop. Coupled with their keen vision and hearing, owls have another hunting advantage: special feathers that don’t make much sound as they fly. Owls definitely occupy a spot near the top of the food chain in most regions.

Furthermore, it’s a myth that owls live in trees. They make their home anywhere that’s comfortable and convenient. They do spend hours on end in trees, however, patiently waiting for unsuspecting prey to stroll by. Even though owls feed mostly on rodents, other local birds tend to keep their distance out of fear and respect. In fact, Appalachian farmers have used owl figurines to deter birds from building nests.

Carrying on the Family Line

Though they aren’t cuddly critters, owls do have a soft side reserved for family matters. They direct most of their aggression to defending their young. While they often fly solo, they do socialize with other owls when it’s time to reproduce. Most owls have only one mate per season, making them one of the few non-human creatures to practice monogamy.

Mating season almost always precedes the time when food is most plentiful, such as the springtime. Owls don’t normally build nests. Instead, they look for a safe crevice and make themselves at home. In some cases, the papa owl makes up to ten food deliveries to the nest each day. Mother and father owls often split nest duty and hunting responsibilities.

In many cases, the mates stay together only for the season — long enough to raise the young. Then they go their separate ways. Sometimes, they find each other again during the next season. Part of the mystery of owls involves whether or not they’re happy with the arrangement!