This series of articles will encourage your children to learn and create with a partnership of nature topics and craft projects kids will love.
Have you ever awoken at night to the sound of a hooting owl? Have you ever felt yourself shudder after hearing the eerie screech of a barn owl (if you have, consider yourself lucky…
they’re endangered in many states)? If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, you’re not alone. Many people in both cities and rural areas experience the wonder of hearing an owl
But what do we know about these elusive night-dwellers? It’s rare to see an owl during the day,
but not because they aren’t around. They tend to blend in very well with their environment. As a result, people go about their days without ever noticing those fluffy camouflaged predators resting quietly in the trees above them.
The Past is the Past
Owls are some of the most unique and proficient birds in the world. In fact, Planet Earth boasts over 200 species. Unfortunately, they are also some of the most misunderstood animals as well. Everyone knows the old wives tales…
- An owl can twist its head all the way around (360 degrees).
- Owls are highly intelligent.
- If an owl passes by a sick person’s window as night, that person is doomed.
- Owls are the pets of witches and warlocks.
These may be popular ideas, but not a single one is true. Owls cannot twist their heads around
One early summer evening years ago when I was a state park naturalist, I presented an educational program about owls at the amphitheater in the park’s campground. I set up the program in advance of the audience arrival, and made sure I had plenty of time to go over my notes. My early preparations had another purpose as well…I wanted to call an owl to the campground.
Being a novice naturalist, I wasn’t as confident in my owl calling skills as I am today, so I played a tape recorded call on a loop for several minutes. As I reviewed my notes and made preparations, I heard a live bird respond to the tape. I waited and listened. Minutes ticked by, and the guest of honor moved closer and closer to the amphitheater. I turned off all the lights, choosing to wait in the waning light in hopes he would be drawn in by the relative safety of the evening shadows.
I didn’t have to wait long. Before I knew it, the owl was calling from just beyond the back section of the amphitheater. I risked turning on my flashlight and slowly panned it through the trees behind the last row of seats. To my surprise, I found him!
Perched gracefully on an upper branch of an oak tree was a barred owl, one of the most common species in the Midwest. He stared passively at me, drawn by the beam of my flashlight. After apparently deciding I was no threat, he turned his head slightly and cocked it downward in the direction of the tape recorder that continued to utter that famous barred owl call: “Who cooks for you…who cooks for you all?”
The visitor remained in the tree throughout the evening’s events, refusing to budge even after I cautiously walked to the back of the amphitheater and turned off the tape player. My audience was utterly amazed by his presence. I was sure he would fly away during the short video portion of my program, but instead he sat stoically through the entire presentation. In fact, I was the last person to leave the amphitheater, and he was still there when I walked away.
Just the Facts
That encounter allowed me to get a close-up look at one of the world’s most magnificent predators. Learning to call an owl to your own backyard is not that difficult, but it’s best to know a few key facts about these unique raptors before you do.
Did you know…
- Owls use “silent flight” to hunt their prey?
An owl’s feathers are specially designed to allow air to pass through the fringes quietly so they can effectively sneak up on their prey. As a result, when an owl flaps its wings, only the slightest sound is heard. This advantageous adaptation is only seen in this particular species of raptor. Couple that with the bird’s extremely light weight (the heaviest species is only 4 pounds on average), and you have a truly efficient body design for a predator.
Did you know…
- If we had eyes the size of an owl’s, they would be as big as softballs?
Did you know…
- Owls don’t have external ears like most animals?
An owl’s ears are primarily internal, having only a small hole buried under feathers as evidence the ears exist. The tufts of feathers we see on the tops of some species’ heads (such as the Great Horned Owl) are not true ears. Even without visible ears, this magnificent bird can hear a mouse in the grass at a distance of 100 yards. That’s the length of a football field!
An owl’s ears are so sensitive, some experiments have shown they can locate and capture prey blindfolded in total darkness. They are able to do this because of the placement of the ear holes. One hole is slightly higher than the other so the animal can pinpoint an object’s location based on when sounds arrive at each ear. A mouse’s squeak might be heard by one ear and then again a split second later by the other ear, which allows the animal’s brain to compute the distance to its prey more accurately.
Owls use all of these special characteristics to hunt and move through the dark night. Their prey consists of mice and other rodents, insects, snakes, and even bats, which they can sometimes snatch out of the air. Once they’ve captured and eaten their prey, owls regurgitate the bones and fur rather than waste precious energy trying to digest those bits any further. Try searching around the base of a large tree in your yard or neighborhood for these owl pellets. If you’re really adventurous, use a pair of tweezers and toothpicks to examine the contents of the pellets.
Now that you know a little bit more about this bird’s lifestyle, try calling from your back porch one evening. You might be pleasantly surprised at the result. Even if you don’t have luck with your call (keep trying…it takes practice), you can still create your own crafty owl magnet with the simple project below.
- Polymer or air dry clay
- Any tool you can use to create texture (such as a toothpick, straight pin, etc.)
- Rolling pin, old wine bottle or other similar tool
- A cutting tool, such as an old butter knife (without serrated edges)
- Baking surface such as a ceramic tile or silicone baking mat
- 4 mm black beads (non-acrylic) for pupils of eyes or make your own with black clay
- Glitter or embossing powder (optional)
- Acrylic paint and brush (optional)
- Choose the colors of clay you prefer and condition the clay for use.
- Use the rolling pin to flatten out your clay in preparation for cutting the necessary shapes. You’ll need a body base (a flattened egg shape), two wings, and two white eyes. See the photo for a better description.
- Place the wings and eyes on the body base. Add decorations/embellishments to the wings and body.
- Add ear tufts, talons, and the beak.
- Place the black beads in the centers of the white eyes. Leave these in place while the clay is baked. If they pop off after baking, use glue to reset them.
- Texture the exposed areas of the body base as you wish, using items you find around your house like a toothpick or straight pin.
- You may also rub glitter or embossing powder onto raised areas of the clay for added color and sparkle.
- Once you are happy with your project, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to cure the clay.
- After your clay has baked/dried, use dark acrylic paint to highlight some of the textures if you choose.
- Glue a magnet to the back of your artwork and place on your refrigerator. Enjoy!
I hope you enjoyed this article. Learning and creating with your kids is always a fun way to engage the entire family. I've often found that family activities such as traveling, gardening, visiting a local park, and going to the zoo are great ways to encourage family bonding and connection. I encourage you to get outside and share the excitement and wonder of discovery with your children. Your life (and theirs) will be richer for your efforts. Enjoy!