I am no night owl. Late night and early morning I prefer to be communing with the sleep fairies. Occasionally though, I lose the battle for the zzzz’s and find myself awake in the darkness. Luckily in these occasional moments of sleeplessness, I am not alone. Screech owls, referred to as “a sluggish loathsome bird” in Roman mythology keep those of us with insomnia company.
These owls may or may not be considered good company. Owls have been the center of myth and lore throughout history. Early Romans believed that owls both caused evil and averted the wickedness that resulted. It was advised that one should nail a dead owl to the door of your house for protection from its earlier mischief. Owls also portended death; it seemed that the demise of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus and Agrippa were all foretold by an owl.
I didn’t panic or fear death when I heard the owl’s call. Neither did I take the advice to return the bird’s call or the even stranger recommendation to take off an item of clothing and put it on again inside-out for protection against the owl. I am not that superstitious; even if I did briefly consider the Louisiana Cajuns’ belief that one should get up from bed and turn their left shoe upside down to avert disaster when you hear an owl calling late at night.
Instead I just listened and marveled at the nightlife. One of the types of calls that a screech owl makes is a distinct whinny which sounds a lot like a horse. From dusk till dawn, this bird is active — hunting, mating and raising its brood (only one clutch per year for this type of owl). By day it nestles down in a tree to wait until the night. Screech owls, also called ghost owls, cat owls, mouse owls, little-eared owls and dusk owls are a small common owl heard Island-wide.
The owl has two color morphs, a red/brown phase and gray phase. Each phase roosts in slightly different parts of a tree in order to keep itself camouflaged. The red phase is found nestled in the outer foliage, while the gray phase rests closer to the tree trunk. You would never call screech owls picky eaters. They will consume almost any animal that they can get their talons on. Large insects, small mammals and almost anything in between (including other types of birds) can be part of their diet. Like other owls, they cannot consume every last bit of their prey, so must regurgitate pellets with the undigested materials, generally bones and fur.
These owls need to eat at least a quarter of their body weight in food per night. It is no wonder that they aren’t sleeping.Eating is their nighttime priority. Unlike the owl, in the middle of the night I am not thinking of food. Perhaps I am just thinking too much and that is the cause of my state of awake. Henry David Thoreau also spent a few sleepless nights at Walden Pond thinking and listening to these denizens of the dark. In 1854, he wrote, “I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and underdeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all [men] have.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.