Curious Nature: Splendor, silence of owls
Vail, CO Colorado
“The Wise Owl”
The wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he saw,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Why can’t we be like
That wise old bird?
Owls seem to be everywhere these days. It may have started with Harry Potter or the “Owls of Ga’Hoole,” and now it’s the snowy owls! Snowy owls usually live in the cold terrain near the arctic and have been showing up in some strange places. It appears to be related to a boom in their main food source, lemmings. The abundance of food apparently caused the owls to lay more eggs than usual. Snowy owls have been seen as far south as Ohio and Kansas and as far east as Massachusetts and all the way west to Seattle, where they have been spotted in city parks!
The snowy owls probably won’t make it to the mountains of Colorado, but you might spot some of our local owls, who are particularly active at this time of year. The great horned owls, in fact, are some of the earliest breeders in the bird world and may already be starting their winter courtship as we speak. If these owls are courting anywhere nearby, you will be sure to hear them, as they make quite a racket with their hooting and hollering. The male hoots have been going on for some time now, as they stake out their breeding territories with a “whoo, whoo-hoo, whooo, whooo” while waiting for the females to respond with a higher pitched two-syllable call. If you were watching, you would see the male holding his body in an odd and distinctive posture during the calling. Holding his body nearly horizontally, he droops his wings and cocks his tail slightly, inflating his white throat patch in a gesture female owls apparently find attractive.
Once paired, the male and female typically bed down in an abandoned hawk or crow’s nest, adding a few soft feathers for added insulation during the cold winter months. Nesting typically begins sometime in January or February, meaning that the parents sometimes have to withstand snow and winter conditions while incubating their precious eggs. Occasionally, the eggs freeze and the birds are forced to expend energy to lay a second clutch. The parents will take turns incubating the eggs for about a month, until the helpless chicks hatch with their eyes closed and their bodies covered with soft, downy, white feathers.
Owls have always been part of nighttime legend and lore. From the legends of wise old owls to the ’70s icon Woodsy Owl who told us to “give a hoot, don’t pollute,” owls manifest an ancient spirit that captivates us. Soaring silently through the darkness, owls live in a mysterious world of nighttime splendor and silence. Their tremendous eyes gaze out into the night, scanning the darkness for telltale signs of movement.
The owl’s pupils are fixed in place, forcing them to turn their heads to change their gaze. Myth tells us that the owl turns his head completely around, like in the famous Exorcist scene, but in fact, owls can only turn their heads about 270 degrees, still giving them a wide range of vision to spot and seize nighttime creepers of all sizes, from mice and voles to animals as large as skunks and porcupines.
This time of year, I wish that I had my own pet owl like Harry Potter. Instead of using my owl as a messenger, I would perch him high in the corner of my kitchen, where he could keep a watchful eye over the pantry. Those little mice would think themselves safe with the fall of darkness to protect them, and then swish, swoop, crunch … my problem would be over. But unfortunately or fortunately, owls don’t domesticate easily without magic, so I’m left to simply set primitive traps and wish that I had the owl’s stealth and swiftness. But beware little mice, for one spring day you will venture back outside, where your stolen winter calories will be silently converted to owl.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate studies at Walking Mountains Science Center. While she enjoys listening to bird calls of all sorts, Squires especially thrills to hear the hoot of an owl in the quiet of night.
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