The Nature Center is home to a number of awesome raptors, including Buzz the turkey vulture, Xena the red-tailed hawk, and a lovely fellow called Artemis the barred owl—you may know him as Art.
Barred owls are often called hoot owls. Have you ever heard a voice calling in the woods at night, “Who cooks for you? Who—who cooks for you all?” That’s the hooting of a barred owl. And this fellow would definitely be a member of the “Clean Plate Club” if he ever had to sit down to dinner with his mother and promise to eat all the different menu items on his plate. Barred owls will prey on a wide variety of small mammals, from the tiny field mouse to the much larger and meatier opossum. They’ll also eat birds, like woodpeckers, snakes, lizards, bugs…some barred owls have even been seen wading into the water for a fish or frog or turtle.
While you may have heard the voice of the barred owl asking you about your cooking habits, it’s unlikely you’ve heard the flap of his large wings (42-inch wingspan!). The feathers on a barred owl’s wing have a fringe on their outer edges, allowing the air to pass silently over them when the owl is flying. Their noiseless flight can make them very startling to folks enjoying the woods at night—and especially to the barred owl’s prey!
Silent feathers aren’t the only cool adaptation barred owls posses. While many species of owls have large ear tufts, barred owls have round heads and practically invisible ears. Their ears are placed unevenly on their head, and are even rotated in slightly different directions. This seemingly off-kilter physical feature gives the barred owl excellent hearing. Barred owls also have two sets of eyelids—sort of. Their outer eyelids are more or less like ours, but they also have a clear, “nictitating membrane” that flicks over their eyes from time to time (for example, when they strike their prey.) Instead of closing up-and-down, like our eyelids do, this membrane slides diagonally across their eyes.
And what about that famous 360-degree head turn we always see the owls in the cartoons do? Well, barred owls’ eyes don’t rotate like ours do, so they have to move their whole head to see from side to side. They do have very flexible necks, and though they can’t quite spin the whole way around, they can turn their heads an impressive 270 degrees.
Art, like many owls, had an unfortunate accident with a moving vehicle, resulting in the partial-amputation of his wing (hence why he lives at the Nature Center.) While his story is sad, there is something you can do for owls and other birds still in the wild. That apple core or crust from your sandwich on a long road trip? Instead of tossing it out the car window, hold on to it until you get home and dispose of it there. Rotting food bits on the side of the road attract the little rodents that birds of prey like to swoop down and snatch for their own snack. This can put them in danger of collision with cars and trucks whizzing by on the highway.
Art is a very special ambassador at the Nature Center. He’s an Education Animal, which means he lives behind the scenes, but is brought out by our caring Animal Staff and volunteers to meet the public face to face. The next time you visit the Center, be sure to check out the special education programs that are held daily. It may be your big chance to meet this fine-feathered fellow, or one of the other fantastic creatures from our Southern Appalachian mountains!