Cleveland Comhrá: Owls of Ireland
By Bob Carney
This is my favorite time of the year to be out walking in the woods. As the trees drop their leaves, visibility becomes better, and wildlife and birds of prey become easier to spot if you’re observant.
Over the years and countless walks in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, we’ve been fortunate to come across a few areas, where, if you’re early enough, quiet enough, and lucky enough, you may spot one of the most mysterious of the raptors.
Imagine walking and suddenly seeing a large dark shape glide silently through the canopy and land a little further away as it maintains its distance? It’s head swivels and now you’re the one being studied.
Owls Native to Northeast Ohio
There are seven species of owls native to Northeast Ohio, and we’ve been lucky enough to have encountered a few of them. They can be easily identified by their round feather formations around their face, to help channel sound to their ears. A useful adaptation for a primarily nocturnal hunter. Their forward facing, piercing eyes and strange nightly calls add to the mystery; it’s no wonder that they’ve become part of our halloween traditions.
Perhaps the very nature of the owl is what led it to being so maligned in Celtic and Irish mythology. Almost always female, the owl was refered to as a creature from the spirit world.
The Hag Goddess
It was believed to represent the Cailleach, the hag goddess, so much so that the Irish for owl is cailleach oíche, night hag. The call of the owl was considered an omen of an impending death.
In other tales, simply seeing an owl foretold of death and they were sometimes called the “corpse bird.” As late as the 1950s, dead owls were nailed to barn doors to ward off evil spirits, in the belief that to fight evil, you had to use evil against itself. Obviously, owls are a species in need of a good PR firm.
Ireland has three native species of owls, all of which can also be found in Northeast Ohio. The Long-eared Owl, Ceann Cait in Irish, means cat head and describes it’s resemblance to a cat, is the most common can be found throughout Ireland.
They are found in forests and wooded areas that abut open fields and grasslands, where they hunt mice, voles, rats and shrews. Their English name comes from the long ear tufts that are raised when they are alarmed or focused on potential prey or just plain curious.
Those tufts lie flat when they are flying or relaxed. Ceann Cait is a medium sized owl, thirteen to sixteen inches in length and with a maximum weight of ¾ lb. The female is the larger of the two.
They tend to nest in abandoned stick nests of other birds. When defending their nest, their ears go up, wings outstrech andwhen they extend, their flight feathers double or triple their appearance.
Long-Eared Owls & The Barn Owl
As with many species of owls around the world, the actual number of Long-Eared Owls in Ireland is unkown, primarily due to the difficulty of studying this silent, nocturnal bird.
The Barn Owl, Scréachóg Reilige, although the most widespread land bird in the world, is the most threatened in Ireland,and was recently red listed in the “Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland.” Larger than the Long-Eared Owl, it weighs up to a pound and a half. The Barn Owl usually nests in barns, chimneys, attics of old buildings, but can also be found in the cavities of trees or even rock crevices.
They require an area of about twenty acres per pair to hunt and raise their young. A pair will normally mate for life and lay four to seven eggs in spring. In a good year, good weather and ample prey, the pair may raise two or three clutches.
The Short-Eared Owl, Ulchabhán Réisc, which roughly translates to owl of the marsh, is a winter visitor to Ireland. It is mostly found on the east and south coasts. These owls, unlike the other two, are diurnal, or active in the daytime.
They hunt small rodents, birds and insects for food. They perch on posts, walls or in the branches of trees, scanning for potential prey, flying low and swooping down on their victims. They rarely breed in Ireland, but oddly enough, when they do, it generally happens on the southwest or west coast.
Rob Kanter, Clinical Associate Professor at The School of Earth Society and Environment at The University of Illinois, says the owl for the most part is a resilient bird and adapts to changing environment. As with all wild creatures, there are things that threaten them, loss of habitat can decrease potential hunting and breeding sites.
Pesticides and poisons to protect crops can be injested by the owl through its prey. Collisions with power lines and vehicles take their toll on many birds of prey.
According to Kanter, owls can be very difficult to put exact numbers on. They can have a large range; some species have hunting sites away from their nesting sites and some are migratory. Not to mention, they are for the most part, nocturnal.
All of these factor into the difficulty of studying them. One thing you can be sure of, though, is that anytime a piece of the equation is tampered with, it has an affect on the whole.
Last month I was able to share some information regarding the forestry taking place in Ireland. This type of responsible industry can have long term benefits for all of the creatures that call Ireland home. A Cherokee elder explained the mindset difference between a Western settler, “ I have rights,” and indigenous people, “I have obligations.”
“Instead of thinking that I am born with rights, I choose to think that I am born with obligations, to serve past, present and future generations, and the planet herself.” – Stan Rushworth
SLÁN GO FÓILL!
Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday@PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs orginizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Morrighán and Rían and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted @ [email protected]
All photos by Rob Kanter