Ruby the Owl teaches folks to give a hoot about wildlife
BY DEBBIE PAGE
Kids and adults alike were mesmerized by Ruby the Eastern Screech Owl at the Birds of Prey program on Monday afternoon at the Troutman Library. Paige Jackson of Allison Woods Outdoor Learning Center (AWOLC), along with Ruby’s handler Dennis Goodin, shared their expertise on these amazing creatures.
Jackson noted that the birds “seem really sweet, but they can be a little temperamental,” as Goodin carefully brought a “quacking” and sleepy Ruby, just awake from a nap, out of her traveling case.
Their feet are called talons, not claws, which are used to procure the small animals, rodents, and fish that the screech owls like to eat. Ruby enjoys a mouse each day, getting two if she seems to be dropping from her normal weight.
He pointed out Ruby’s gray feathers and markings, along with the tiny feathers that look almost like fur on her legs. Goodin dispelled the myth that she can turn her head all the way around, with Jackson describing Ruby’s range of neck motion at about 270 degrees.
The neck range compensates for the fact that the bird has no peripheral vision. Jackson had attendees make circles with their fingers to block their peripheral vision to see how Ruby sees the world.
“However, she can turn her head so quickly that it looks like she is turning her head all the way around,” said Jackson.
The tufts on the top of her head are part of her camouflage, not ears as some may think.
Using visual aids such as various types of sharp talons, beaks, wing spans of hawks, tail feathers, and an owl skull, Jackson described the uses of each and differences between various species of predators.
Goodin noted that the owl can see prey from a half-mile distance and hear it rustling from a quarter-mile away. The staff feed Ruby each day in her special room, which she flies around to exercise and interact with her handlers.
Ruby will take a bite out of her mouse and save the rest for a snack later, added Jackson.
The staff monitor her weight and health in unique ways. They watch the amount of tissue around Ruby’s breast bone to determine if she is eating too little or too much and getting enough exercise.
Because it cannot digest all parts of its prey, the owl spits up the leftover fur, bones, feathers, and teeth in a clean rounded chunk called a pellet. If the pellets have a mucus film or have a bad smell, the staff know Ruby is sick and take her to the veterinarian.
Jackson also showed the unique characteristics of an owl’s head. The eye spaces are large in comparison to the skull size to accommodate the owl’s wide eyes, which see in an ultraviolet light spectrum.
Ruby’s eyes are so good, according to Jackson, that she could leave her phone by the entrance, about 50 feet away, and Ruby would have the ability to see her text messages clearly.
The owl’s ears are asymmetrical, with one higher than the other, so that the bird can hear in a stereo-like manner. “The sounds actually bounce off her face. Her face is flat, and the sounds bounce off and help her to understand where the sound is coming from.”
The owl’s eyesight and hearing allows the bird to plan for its next meal very quickly, Jackson added.
Their sharp beaks and talons help them tear their prey into edible size pieces.
Jackson also noted that Ruby does not emit the “Hoo-hoo” sound normally associated with owls, instead making a trilling sound “that can give you shivers down your back in the dark woods,” said Jackson.
The owl’s feathers are also very quiet when they fly so they can sneak up quickly and quietly on prey.
“They are called the silent predator,” explained Jackson, who demonstrated by flapping an owl’s wing, which made no noise, and a hawk’s wing, which made a whooshing sound.
The red-tail hawk’s tail feathers were different because of their age. A young hawk’s tail has stripes, while the adult has a deep rusty red appearance. Jackson also noted that birds molt each year and grow a new set of camouflaging feathers.
Jackson also displayed a Carolina wren nest with a tiny egg. These birds make nests on tree branches. In contrast, birds of prey like owls and their families create nests in knotholes in trees or clefts in rocks for better shelter.