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Vail Curious Nature: Owls show super-powers

Rodney Beall
Special to the Vail Daily
Rodney Beall
ALL |

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – When I was a kid I wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I wanted to be witty and athletic and be able to fight bad guys with swords. I also sometimes wanted to be Spiderman – to climb walls, shoot webs, and stop evildoers.

Real turtles and spiders, however, are unlikely heroes. When I tell school kids about turtles crawling into mud to hibernate, they tend to fidget. And spiders … well … it’s hard to hear my spider lesson over all the screaming.

Some other animals, however, truly seem like superheroes with super powers honed to defy reality. They are mystical creatures from the other side of the wardrobe. Kindergartners (and I) dream about having their powers.

I wish I could fly!

I wish I had super-incredible vision!

I wish I were invisible!

There is one animal that embodies the magic of the superhero. With a mask and cloak of feathers, on a stage of shadow and starlight, this rogue lives in a world of silence, cunning and, perhaps, madness.

Her ears are specially placed – one higher than the other – so that she can map the world just by hearing it. Her huge eyes have special retinas to see in the dark. They are so specialized, they are not even eyeballs, but rather elongated tubes, which channel images and essentially work as a telescope.

When she spots her prey, she makes not a sound – special fringed feathers on her wings disrupt airflow, making her completely silent in flight – and none but the hapless mouse ever knows she exists.

But who is this ghost of the night?

Who, hoo-hoo?

Right now, she’s out there somewhere, silent as ice, unmoving as a gargoyle.

She’s the ultimate bandit. She is the owl. We might never see this feathery shadow, but we can see signs of her presence, like wing marks stamped in the snow where she has snatched up a mouse, or pellets of fur and bones she spit up under her favorite roost, where she sits to digest. If we’re lucky, we might see big yellow eyes peering back at us from the trees.

But this season, the owls of the Eagle Valley can be more than just a mystery. This valley is home to several owl species, including the small Western screech-owl, the round-faced Boreal, and the cunning giant known as the great horned owl.

January and February is the time when great horned owls are establishing territory and finding a mate, so they will be vocal and active this month. If you go out at night into the woods, into farm fields, or even in your neighborhood, you could hear them hooting or maybe even call one in.

So one of these nights, plan a play date to go “owling.” Gather your kids, your husband or the girl from the coffee shop, and agree to stay up past bedtime. Read Jane Yolen’s “Owl Moon,” and then go out to where you think owls might be.

Be still, and just listen. Breathe softly. Listen to the wind in the pines and the sound of snow grains on the willows. Wait longer than you think you should. Then, call out into the night like the shadowy ghost you are seeking, “Hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo.”

Of course, like in anything worth doing, there is no guarantee of encountering an owl. But if you open your ears to the sky, let the starlight fill your eyes and feel the beauty of the night, there is a 100 percent chance of success.

Gore Range Natural Science School offers an owl program once a month as part of our Nature at Night series at the Nature Discovery Center on Vail Mountain. We seek to evoke a sense of wonder and inspire environmental stewardship through natural science education.

The Breeding Bird Atlas is a volunteer-driven effort to catalog local birds. If you would like to volunteer, or for more information, visit http://www.cobreedingbirdatlasii.org.

The Gore Range Natural Science School’s Curious Nature column appears Mondays in the Vail Daily and on http://www.vaildaily.com. Rodney Beall is a graduate fellow in natural science education at Gore Range Natural Science School where he teaches school children and talks to animals. http://www.gorerange.org


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