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updated: 2/7/2014 10:07 AM

Owls not bright, but vicious at night

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  • A great horned owl at the Rock Springs Nature Center in Decatur.

      A great horned owl at the Rock Springs Nature Center in Decatur.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

DECATUR -- The learned old owls living on the grounds of Harvard University are supposed to be so erudite they disdain "to-wit-to-woo" in favor of "to-wit-to-whom?"

It's all part of a vigorous owl mythology fed by Disney movies such as "Bambi" that portray owls as these portly, wise and feathered academics of the forest. That's no doubt an easier sell with the movie popcorn than a full color close-up of a great horned owl using its rapier talons to gut Thumper and then choking down what's left.

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Pulling the feathers from your eyes to discover the true world of the owl turns out to be no less fascinating than the fantasy version, however, if rather bloodier. By Tony Reid. (Decatur) Herald and Review. SENT: 450 words, photo And now you've got a chance to find out 2 p.m. Saturday. Rock Springs Nature Center will host "Hoot-Enanny!" a look at the owls of Central Illinois and how they really live.

Richie Wolf (yes, he gets a lot of jokes), the nature center manager, said there's a lot of superstition and lore to cut through. "Like stories that if you hear an owl hooting in your backyard, they are there to warn of oncoming death," he added.

Some owls are endangered themselves, like the pretty barn owl, while others are doing much better. Great horned owls, standing 2 feet tall, thrive because they eat almost anything. "They have been called the `tiger of the sky', they are such voracious predators," Wolf said.

Eight species of owl live in Illinois, and Wolf said their survival is a critical part of the pest control food chain. They are also fascinating animals with eyes like night vision goggles and ears like radar units.

"And they have special feathers that make no sound," Wolf adds. "What they eat never hears them coming."

The Disney take on their intellectual prowess is a flight of fancy, however, according to Jacques Nuzzo, program director at the Illinois Raptor Center whose facility provided the live owls who illustrate this story (they won't be out at Rock Springs).

"Great horned owls are probably one of the slowest birds I've ever seen in my life as far as processing information," Nuzzo said.

He also said owls in general are beloved by a public that rarely gets to see one in the wild. He found that out when he presented a program and brought along a barn owl, a golden eagle, a peregrine falcon and a red-tailed hawk.

"People would come up and go `Oh my God, look at the owl,"' recalled Nuzzo. "And I am like `Hey, that is a golden eagle sitting there ...' But they were all like `Oh, no, I want to look at the owl.' "

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