With her caramel coloring and heart-shaped face, Mavis, a barn owl who recently joined the falconry team at Sea Island, is already charming members and guests.
By Nancy Dorman-Hickson
Catching a glimpse of barn owls in the wild is rare, as they hunt almost exclusively at night. Their flight is virtually silent, aided by soft feathers that don’t allow even a quiet whoosh. Found all over the world except Antarctica, they reside in many different habitats. Barn owls specifically nest in abandoned buildings, making their homes in steeples, stables and, of course, barns. They are popular with farmers and winegrowers, who often try to attract the birds to protect their crops from rodents. It’s no wonder that in folklore, barn owls are sometimes depicted as messengers of protection and luck.
Weighing roughly 1 pound, Sea Island’s barn owl, Mavis, delights members and guests with her big personality and heart-shaped face. She is often seen at the Beach Club or The Cloister, accompanied by Sea Island falconer and handler Paige Hansen. “I started as a marine biology major in college, but then I did an internship at a zoo in the bird department and fell in love with birds,” she says. Hansen has raised Mavis since the resort acquired her when she was just 6 weeks old, keeping the bird in her home at first and now in a backyard enclosure at night.
“Mavis is called an imprint,” Hansen explains. “So now she thinks she’s human—or maybe that humans are owls. Imprinting makes her more comfortable around people and not as wild as owls normally are.” Hansen adds that Mavis “is feisty and has a big attitude, and she’s very smart, too. She loves to be around people.” The barn owl is one of the stars of the show, featured in the resort’s Owl Prowl, Introduction to Falconry, and Raptors and Reptiles classes.
The falconry program at Sea Island began when birds of prey were first brought on the premises to chase away boat-tailed grackles and other nuisance birds that were trying to steal food from people. It evolved into offerings for members and guests with half-day falconry hunts at Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge, as well as other on-property programs that provide exciting experiences for those who want to watch the birds in action. Hansen hopes to train Mavis to fly to members and guests and possibly to hunt as well.
“Hunting with owls is uncommon,” she admits. “It can be done, but it can be tricky. Owls can be difficult to hunt with due to their mostly nocturnal nature. Convincing them to hunt during the day can be tough or hunting with them at night is tough for us who are not as well adapted to the night.”
Currently, members and guests can touch, pet and hold Mavis, although the barn owl “is not like a dog or cat; she is not naturally cuddly,” Hansen says.
Hansen explains that in the wild, barn owls can hunt in complete darkness without ever spotting their prey. “That’s because of the ring of feathers that circles her face, which acts like a satellite dish to bring the sound of the prey to her ears,” Hansen explains. “The ears are crooked or asymmetrical, meaning one ear is higher than the other. That slight difference gives her the ability to track down the prey without ever seeing it, even though she does have incredible night vision as well.”
If it’s feeding time for Mavis, people participating in a class may choose whether or not to watch as she devours her food. “When owls eat, they swallow their food whole if they can,” Hansen says. In Mavis’ case, the barn owl is fed a steady diet of mice and chicken. “Mavis is a bottomless pit,” Hansen adds with a chuckle.
How barn owls’ digestive systems handle food is somewhat astonishing. “In their body, they completely separate the meat from the bones,” Hansen explains. “The meat goes to the stomach to be digested and all the bones, feathers and fur are compressed and formed into a pellet, something resembling a hairball.” The owl regurgitates the pellet within 24 hours.
People participating in the Owl Prowl can dissect the pellet to find clues about what an owl ingested. “It’s like a scavenger hunt for what the owl ate,” says Hansen, who loves being able to share the uncommon qualities of owls like Mavis with members and guests. “Owls are so special—especially barn owls—because they are nocturnal,” she says. “When you see them, it’s a special sight.”
Discover just a few of the interesting traits that make barn owls unique.
1. These birds have wingspans of roughly 40 inches—equivalent to the arm span of a small child.
2. In addition to rodents, barn owls can eat insects, reptiles, fish or small birds.
3. Found everywhere except Antarctica, these birds make their homes in all kinds of habitats, from forests and fields to grasslands, wetlands, deserts and even busy urban spaces.
4. It takes roughly a month for barn owl eggs to hatch, then another two months until the youth are able to fly for the first time.
5. Long legs, toes and talons allow barn owls to pluck their prey from hard-to-reach areas like tall grasses or marshland.
6. Females are often heavier than males, and have more markings on their face, chest, wings and tail.
7. Barn owls can turn their necks 270 degrees (or more), providing them with an expansive field of vision.