Owls of North America

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Heavily illustrated with beautiful, clear photographs.
-- Booklist

Owls are almost everywhere. These distinctive birds populate every continent except Antarctica and survive in everything from arid desert to arctic tundra to dense rain forest.

Frances Backhouse provides an in-depth yet lively study of these fascinating birds. Topics include anatomy and adaptations, mating ...

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Heavily illustrated with beautiful, clear photographs.
-- Booklist

Owls are almost everywhere. These distinctive birds populate every continent except Antarctica and survive in everything from arid desert to arctic tundra to dense rain forest.

Frances Backhouse provides an in-depth yet lively study of these fascinating birds. Topics include anatomy and adaptations, mating behaviors, egg laying and chick rearing, feeding habits, communication displays and location.

Superbly designed birds of prey, owls are equipped with highly effective tools for killing and dismembering their prey: strong feet with curved, stiletto-like talons and a sturdy hooked bill with razor-sharp cutting edges. What makes owls unique is that most of them hunt in darkness from dusk to dawn using their keen hearing, enhanced low-light vision and sound-muffling structures on their flight feathers.

With detailed profiles of and range maps for all 23 species, along with 70 color photographs illustrating key behavioral characteristics, Owls of North America is a solid reference for birders, naturalists and general readers.

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Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune-City - William Hageman
[Review of hardcover edition] Wildlife author Constance Backhouse's well-researched and informative book helps us get closer to these haunting and often misunderstood birds.
Metroland North.com - Glenn Perrett
[Review of hardcover edition] If you enjoy owls or learning about wildlife in North America, you will enjoy Owls of North America by Frances Backhouse. [The book] looks at such subjects as "Owls and Humans," how owls are adapted for nightlife, their feeding habits, communication and mating. The chapter "Life's Journey" describes an owl's life from eggs and incubation to nestlings to when they leave the nest and become independent, as well as many reasons for their death. The chapter on "Species Profiles" looks at the 23 species of owls found in North America. The profiles are reasonable in depth providing information on such subjects as: appearance, voice, roosting sites, distribution, habitat, feeding, breeding, migration, and conservation. Distribution maps are also included. Seventy beautiful colour photographs complement Backhouse's information and informative text.
January magazine
[Review of hardcover edition] Readers with an interest in owls will simply not find a better book than respected science and environmental writer Frances Backhouse's Owls of North America. The book is large and handsome, suitable for coffee table adornment, but don't let it spend too much time there.... Owls of North America will be a fabulous gift for the naturalist or curious child on your list.
Muskoka Today - Lois Cooper
[Review of hardcover edition] An in-depth yet lively study of these fascinating birds... Exceptionally well done.
Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN - Jim Williams
[Review of hardcover edition] There can't be too many books about owls. That's because we know these birds -- which are rarely seen and are vocal for only brief intervals each year -- mostly through the work of scientists and writers.... With her clean and clear text, she illuminates these fascinating birds brightly. Her book invites a deeper appreciation of these mysterious neighbors of ours.
The Birder's Library.com
[Review of hardcover edition] [starred review] A remarkable amount of information is presented, but in a way that anyone can understand.... Owls are fascinating creatures. If you'd like to have a light shone into their nocturnal world and learn more about them and their live, then this book is for you.
Wingbars.com - Grant McCreary
[Review of hardcover edition] Large, beautifully produced [and] has fantastic photography... enjoyable and comprehensive.... Recommended to anyone wishing to learn more about [this] fascinating family.
Journal of the British Ornithologists' Union - David H. Johnson
[Review of hardcover edition] The primary audience for this superbly written book about owls includes birdwatchers, naturalists, and general readers. Frances Backhouse clearly has a unique talent for environmental writing. Her smooth style belies the tremendous synthesis of the substantial and complex scientific material she has reviewed in preparing for this book. Biologists and owl researchers will find it a useful reference in explaining to family members and other non-biologists some of the excitement and passion they feel about owls. This is exactly the kind of book one would (or should) find in all Nature or Environmental Education Centres.... The topics offered reflect the key aspects of owl ecology, and flow nicely from start to finish.... The fundamental strength of the book is the way it incorporates much more information on the ecological aspects of the owls, and presents this in more depth, and in a much clearer, coherent way than its predecessors. The choice of chapter topics, components in the species profiles, and overall flow of the book are clearly well thought out. Likewise, the 70-plus photographs were chosen and placed with care, so that they not only convey a nice image of an owl, but also emphasize the associated message in the text.
Science Books and Films - John D. Newman
[Review of hardcover edition] The accounts of the various birds are thorough, covering the bird's appearance, voice, timing of activities, roosting sites, breeding, migration, and conservation status. Excellent photographs accompany the text.
[Review of hardcover edition] Owls of North America is a stunning, photo-loaded book featuring the mysterious and fantastic family of birds known as owls. While this oversized volume of glossy pages might be mistaken for a "coffee table book," it is undoubtedly much more than that... The text, while not simple, is definitely readable for younger audiences (pre-teen and up). It was hard to keep our 10-year-old from running off with the book.
Shelf Life - Joan Sutter
[Review of hardcover edition] The seventy color photographs are stunning, and have been contributed by some of the best wildlife photographers out there, making this a must-have book for your library, if you are a lover of all things outdoors... A most impressive package that you cannot help but enjoy.
Booklist - Nancy Bent
[Review of hardcover edition] Backhouse takes an intimate look at the 22 species of typical owls and one species of barn owl found in North America...Heavily illustrated with beautiful, clear photographs.
The Chronicle Herald - Jodi DeLong
[Review of hardcover edition] A thoroughly charming and informative look at these enigmatic creatures of the night.
Lake Wah-Wash-Kesh Conservation Association - N. Glenn Perrett
[Review of hardcover edition] Seventy beautiful colour photographs complement Backhouse's informative and interesting text.
The Star Phoenix - Bill Robertson
[Review of hardcover edition] Packed with information, going from generalities to species profiles, complete with stunning photographs.
The Whitehorse Star - Dan Davidson
[Review of hardcover edition] These are lavishly illustrated, beautifully designed volumes in which Backhouse not only provides information about different species but also shows how they fit into their ecosystems and how they relate to humans. (reviewed with Woodpeckers of North America)
Birdbooker Report 215, The Guardian - Ian Paulsen
[Review of hardcover edition] Frances Backhouse provides an in-depth yet lively study of these fascinating birds. Topics include anatomy and adaptations, mating behaviors, egg laying and chick rearing, feeding habits, communication displays and location...With detailed profiles of and range maps for all 23 species, along with 70 color photographs illustrating key behavioral characteristics, Owls of North America is a solid reference for birders, naturalists and general readers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781770852327
  • Publisher: Firefly Books, Limited
  • Publication date: 9/1/2013
  • Pages: 216
  • Sales rank: 382,944
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Frances Backhouse has written articles on wildlife and the environment for numerous magazines, among them Audubon and Equinox. Her books include Woodpeckers of North America.

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Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Owls and Humans
Who's Who
Built for the Night Shift
Feeding Habits
The Mating Game
Life's Journey
At Rest and on the Move
Species Profiles
Literary Permissions
Photo Credits

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Owls and Humans

From ancient myth to Harry Potter, owls hold an enduring place in the human imagination. In some cultures they are revered, in others, feared. And for every superstition that associates owls with good fortune, a dozen more link them to mortality, sickness or evil. A small sample of the hundreds of legends, beliefs and customs that invoke owls gives a sense of the prominent and diverse roles in which these birds have been cast.

On the positive side, Aboriginal tradition in some parts of Australia holds that owls guard women's souls, and women are directed to look after their female kin by protecting owls. In South America pygmy-owls are kept as cage birds because they are believed to bring their owners luck and success in love. The Ainu people of northern Japan considered Blakiston's eagle-owl to be a divine ancestor and would drink a toast to it before setting out on hunting expeditions. Greek mythology links the goddess of wisdom, Athene, to owls, and this connection is commemorated in the name of the genus to which the burrowing owl belongs.

Associations between owls and death are prominent, widespread and sometimes very specific. In the southwestern United States, Pima Indian custom dictates that a feather molted by a living owl be placed in the hand of a dying person so that the owl can safely guide that person on the journey from life to death. In Sicily the Eurasian scops-owl is a messenger of death; its call near the house of a sick man announces that he will die within three days. For the Zapotec people of southern Mexico, the barn owl delivers the bad news and fetches the soul of the deceased. In Louisiana, Cajuns whose sleep was disturbed by the calling of eastern screech-owls used to turn their left shoe upside down or their left trouser pocket inside out to cancel this ill omen.

The scientific nomenclature of owls reflects historical European connections between owls and sorcery. The Greek word for witch, strix, is used to name one genus, and its Latin derivative, striga, names the order Strigiformes, to which all owls belong. Owls are also associated with witchcraft in other parts of the world. Such beliefs are strong and persistent in many parts of Africa, resulting in a significant number of owl killings. Similarly, the persecution of stygian owls in Hispaniola arises from superstitions about these owls transforming themselves into witches.

The earliest known depictions of owls are found in caves in southwestern France and date back to the Upper Paleolithic period, 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. The ear tufts on an owl painted on a wall in the Crotte Chauvet cave suggest an eagle-owl or long-eared owl. In the Trois Frères cave the etched outline of a pair of snowy owls and their young recalls a time when this species occurred much farther south than it does today. A number of Australian caves also harbor ancient paintings of owls, the work of early Aboriginal artists.

Other evidence that humans have long been enthralled by these birds includes the mummified remains of barn owls in ancient Egyptian tombs. The Egyptians also used owl symbols in their hieroglyphics, as did the Mayans. Among the oldest written documents that make reference to owls are the Bible and Pliny's Historia Naturalis, and, somewhat later, the works of Shakespeare.

Historically, owls have not fared well at the hands of humans. Because of their alleged supernatural powers, their body parts have often been used in folk medicines and magic rituals. Some traditions, such as the widespread African custom of eating owl's eyes to improve night vision, have obvious origins, but others are more obscure. In Morocco suspicious husbands or fathers were advised to place the right eye of a Eurasian eagle-owl in the hand of a sleeping wife or daughter so that she would truthfully report on her daytime activities. Pliny, however, suggested laying the heart of a "screech owl" (the species now known as the barn owl) on the left side of a sleeping woman to induce her to reveal her own heart's secrets.

Pliny also offered a recipe to treat heavy bleeding that required boiling a barn owl in oil, then adding ewe's-milk butter and honey. In Yorkshire, England, owl soup was at one time prescribed as a remedy for whooping cough, while in Poland rheumatism was said to be cured by burning owl feathers over a charcoal fire or eating baked owl. In Uruguay burrowing owl is traditionally served to convalescents to stimulate their appetite. Chinese traditional medicine makes extensive use of owl body parts, and many owls are still killed in Asia to meet the demand.

Culinary traditions that treat owls simply as food are less common. In North America the species most commonly eaten for nourishment in the past was probably the snowy owl, which some Inuit hunters still take as game. John James Audubon sampled the meat of a snowy owl that he had dissected for scientific purposes and declared it to be "not disagreeable eating." Great gray owls were reportedly trapped for food by some northern Native peoples.

With the colonization of North America by Europeans, owl mortality increased greatly. Most settlers had little interest in eating owls, but they didn't hesitate to kill them. As biologist Arthur Cleveland Bent noted in 1937, "Owls have few enemies except man; unfortunately they are usually shot on sight, because they are big and are picturesque as mounted specimens, or because they are supposed to destroy game and domestic poultry."

While education and legal prohibitions have largely put an end to the intentional killing of owls in North America, humans continue to exert a negative influence on many of the continent's species, with habitat destruction being the number-one cause of population declines. Some North American owls, including the great horned and the mottled, seem to be fairly tolerant of the changes humans have wrought upon the landscape over the past century, and a few species have expanded into new territory, apparently in response to habitat modifications. But even as the barred owl and the western screech-owl spread into new areas, there are hints that their numbers are dropping within their original range.

The majority of owl species in North America have a more restricted distribution and smaller populations than they did a hundred years ago. Among those whose situation is most critical are the burrowing owl, the ferruginous pygmy-owl and the spotted owl. In each case the greatest threat to the species' long-term survival is loss of vital habitat. Whether the cause is industrial logging or urban sprawl, the conversion of grasslands to croplands or the damming and diversion of rivers, the end result is the same: a place that was once a welcoming home is no longer habitable.

Ultimately, whether we can maintain the continent's full diversity of owl species and subspecies will depend on our knowledge of their particular ecological requirements and our willingness to accommodate those needs. Individuals who want to play a role in owl conservation can get involved in a number of ways. For many cavity-nesting owls, nest boxes are a satisfactory substitute for natural cavities or old woodpecker nest holes. Barn owls are especially dependent on humans to provide housing. If you have suitable habitat on your property you can put up an owl box or two at home. Or you can sign up with one of the many programs that rely on volunteers to build, erect and maintain nest boxes. Other opportunities for members of the public to contribute to owl research include reporting sightings (for example, through www.ebird.org), participating in Christmas bird counts or other surveys, and helping with banding efforts such as those that have been so central to revealing the mysteries of northern saw-whet owl migration.

Above all, you can get to know these enigmatic birds better, moving beyond myth and superstition to a deeper understanding of the fascinating realities of their lives.

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