Imagine: it is night, we are alone on the outskirts of a half-abandoned town. In the streets, empty and silent, only our halting and hesitant footsteps can be heard. A reddish moon appears between the roofs and dyes the clouds that surround it with blood. Suddenly a strange whisper begins to bother us. It is getting more and more powerful. It comes from the old church tower, which rises above the tombstones in the cemetery… Fear, restlessness and the desire to run away crowd our chests… I am describing two things to you: the typical setting of a horror movie and the natural ecosystem of barn owls or barn owls, which are exactly what we are looking for.
That strange whisper that makes us uncomfortable can be suspicious and alarming for a neophyte, for a walker. It’s an extremely weird noise: a deep, ragged, loud sigh. Sibilant and silky at the same time, with something human and something ghostly. It certainly does not sound like the song of a bird or the grunt of a mammal… Imagination, so free and powerful, can solve the sound enigma by attributing it to a ghost, a spirit, a supernatural entity… After all, we are next to an old cemetery!
Could not be farther from the truth. Those sighs are a love song, strange, it’s true, but true love. The owls are in heat and that is their melody. The truth is that Barn owls are silent on their night flights but loud when in love. The couples call each other and whisper, shout and purr, creating a somewhat gruesome concert that can, with good reason, scare away an accidental passerby.
Good allies against rodents
However, owls are habitual neighbors of the towns and the human constructions. Their songs should not scare us. On the contrary, his presence should make us happy and comfort us because They are our best allies to combat rodent pests. In fact, their habit of staying in our buildings is due to the abundance of mice, rats and voles in the vicinity of towns and cities.
We have been lucky, their sighs confirm their presence, so we position our microphones to capture them with all their intensity and all their nuances, because the owls They make an enormous number of different sounds, from when they are newborn chicks to when they become adults in heat.
At dawn we go to look for more evidence of his presence. During the day, owls hide with great skill in holes, attics and roofs. It is very difficult to see them. However, they leave very obvious traces where they live. Under their habitual innkeepers the remains of their feasts accumulate. Tens of gray or blackish balls contain all the waste that cannot be digested. Scientists callpellets” to these balls composed of hair and skeletons. Inside they keep each bone of their prey: the skulls of mice, voles, shrews, birds or bats are preserved intact as they swallow their victims whole.
Maybe it’s time to consider if there is something of a horror story in the life of owls, especially if you are a mouse or a vole.
For me it is a delight to open the pellets with great care and discover that the owl had dinner and, incidentally, to know the abundant fauna of small mammals that roams around without being seen… except for the owls.
Curiosities about owls
Barn owls usually display a snowy, immaculate chest, like the inside of their wings or their heart-shaped face. That intensely white color and erratic flight, added to its strange crooning, have given it a very bad name because it could well be a ghost. In addition, it seems linked to cemeteries, old ruins, medieval castles or church towers. Such scenarios make it suspect and is reason enough to popularly consider it a bird of bad omen. There are legends that say that if you listen to the owl near your house someone will fall ill and if you hear it two or three times the grim reaper approaches with its sharp scythe.
Apart from their bad reputation, absolutely false, owls They hold many surprises:
1) Science Helpers: The owl’s diet is one of the best known of all birds, since the balls it vomits every day serve as a faithful record of its entire menu. But they are also very useful for zoologists who study mammals; To find out about the microfauna of rodents, insectivores and other small animals in many places, the pellets of owls are used as an invaluable source of information.
2) Citizens of the world: Barn owl populations span almost every continent and inhabit both the northern and southern hemispheres. They are the best distributed owls on the entire planet.
3) Hunter by obligation: Barn owls do not store fat in their bodies to withstand the lack of food or the intense cold of winter. This characteristic of her metabolism forces her to hunt every day so as not to die of malnutrition.
4) Large families: Barn owls are capable of breeding several times a year if environmental conditions are good and food is plentiful. They can make more than three clutches and raise clutches of more than seven chicks in the middle of autumn.
5) A complicated childhood: The owls begin to incubate their clutch as soon as they lay the first egg, which means that between the first chick and the last there can be a difference of two weeks at the time of hatching. The little ones have a harder time surviving because the older ones always prevail at mealtime. In case of food shortages, the little ones often starve.
6) Fly in silence: Barn owls are magnificent predators. Part of their success when hunting is due to the fact that they fly without making noise, so that the mice are not able to detect them when they approach. The reason for its silent flight lies in special feathers that show the outer edge frayed and soft as velvet. This peculiar adaptation of the feathers prevents the wings from making noise when moving.
7) Sharp Senses: These nocturnal birds not only have magnificent eyesight, far superior to ours; their sense of hearing is also very powerful. Its facial disk channels the noises of the environment towards its small ears. Thanks to the asymmetrical arrangement of the ears, the barn owl is capable of locating the sound source -a mouse eating, for example- in complete darkness and hovering over it as if it were seeing it.
* You can learn all the secrets of the Iberian fauna every Sunday at La 2 at 6:00 p.m.:30 p.m. field notebook. All the episodes are available -free and online- on RTVE Play.