Hoot! Hoot! Meet your neighborhood Birmingham owls

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl. Photo via Greg Harber

A few months ago I received a request to write about the owls that live in the Magic City. The expert I consulted was Anne Miller, the founder of the Alabama Wildlife Center and recent recipient of the Alabama Audubon Yellowhammer Award.

Anne is one of my favorite naturalists in Birmingham. In addition to her extensive knowledge of birds and wildlife, Anne is generous and kind-hearted. I genuinely enjoy talking to her about owls.

Babies and Their Parents

Anne Miller
Anne with her niece Eva Ledvina. Photo by Matt Hunter

A little background about Anne and owls.

When Anne headed up the Alabama Wildlife Center back in 1977, owls were her favorite. 

She told me that her biggest accomplishment with owls was recognizing the relationship between baby owls and their parents.

“I raised so many owls. Early on, it was exciting to raise these young owls in flight cages and return them to the wild. Over time, I realized that nearly all of the baby owls we (Alabama Wildlife Center) received could be returned to their own parents. That became my most important contribution: developing methods of returning babies that had gotten separated from their parents back to their parents. Usually, nothing had happened to the parents – they were still in the area and wanted their babies back.”

Anne has been recognized nationally in the wildlife rehabilitation community for this discovery.  

Meet Birmingham’s Owls

According to Anne, Birmingham has four kinds of owls that commonly reside here. They are each distinctly different. Here is how Anne described them.

Barn Owl 

Barn Owl
Barn Owl. Photo by Greg Harber

Anne told me Barn Owl’s have been found in Birmingham along old field habitat beside the railroad lines. Famously, they used to nest in Sloss Furnace (obviously not IN the furnace). They are urban and very much a rural bird too, and specifically different from the other three species of owls in Birmingham by the way they catch their food.

“They are beautiful birds. They have long broad wings and cruise low over open territory dropping down over a short distance to pick up a mouse in the tall grass. The other owls are “sit and wait” perch hunters, where they hear a sound of a prey item moving around – they fly down and pounce. The barn owl cruises over endlessly open land searching for prey.” 

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl. Photo via Greg Harber

Anne calls the Great Horned Owl the 800 pound gorilla of the bird world.  They are really large and heavy. They eat animals as big as skunks and have been known to take a small fox. 

“You would think they would be the loudest (owl), but they actually have a very soft hoot. The mates answer. There is usually a dialogue going on between the owls. The female’s voice is a little higher. They always sound like they are telling secrets.” 

Normally, the Great Horned Owls like uplands and open spaces with big trees, but they can also be found at lower elevations.

Barred Owl 

Barred Owl
Barred Owl. Photo via Greg Harber

Barred Owls are really loud and if you regularly visit the woods you have heard its hoots – “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?

Smaller than a Great Horned Owl and yes  sometimes eaten by them, it likes to be near water. It is a bird of the hardwood bottomlands.  

“They are prevalent around here on Shades Creek, in Homewood and Mountain Brook. They start to nest in February, so they should be vocalizing beginning this month.”

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl. Photo via Greg Harber

The Screech Owl is  Birmingham’s smallest owl that is about 5-6 inches tall. Their voice has a trembling sound. According to Anne, in her opinion they are not  adjusting to urban life like the other owls.  They tend to live on the outer edges of urban areas that are not as developed. 

“They are secretive.”

Learn How to Birdwatch First

Whitney Byington
Birdwatching. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

If you are interested in owls and other birds around Birmingham, you can learn the craft by attending Alabama Audubon bird watching classes. Next Tuesday, February 16th, 6:00PM there is a virtual “Introduction to Bird Watching Class” scheduled with the Hoover Library. 

Here are the details.

 Anne recommends people learn how to bird watch, attend a Alabama Audubon field trip and learn to make your own backyard bird friendly, instead of venturing out in the woods looking for owls. 

“We don’t need people disturbing the owls. We don’t encourage looking for them. I’m a lifetime wildlife rehabilitator – so I’m on the animal’s side,” Anne concluded.

Good advice.  

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Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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