Wind on the howl, and on the wing |

Wind on the howl, and on the wing

Alan Braunholtz

Usually on river trips I opt for the bivvy option, much less hassle and there is always a tarp to wrap oneself in taco style if it rains big time. Unceasing winds, gale-forced gusts and flying sand for several days wore me down. Sand’s gritty pervasiveness is much more annoying than rain. I now have a heightened respect for Bedouins and the camels they shelter behind during desert sandstorms.

Maybe it’s normal, but it seems that this year is persistently windy. Normally, we get a storm front moving in, high winds as the storm clouds gather, then the rain or snow hits. It’s all kind of fun and exciting. Now we’re getting steady winds with no precipitation for days at a time.

If I wanted to live in North Dakota I’d move there. I guess their weather is moving here. I have no idea why. Maybe its nature’s way of sending the Gobi desert some of our sand after their storms deposited yellow dust over the United States earlier this winter.

Weather is global and a good argument for multilateralist thinking. Winds do not respect borders, national security or isolationism. If India and Pakistan decide to play the tough guy to impress their citizens, let things get out of hand and have even a limited nuclear exchange, then we’ll experience their dust.

Winds affect wildlife, too. High winds impair an animal’s sense of hearing. Soft rustles and cracks of approaching footsteps no longer travel through the woods. All are drowned out by the hissing winds swarming over the hollows, humps and contours of the mountains.

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My guess is that sight predators can stalk their prey a little easier. Perhaps that’s why horses (a prey animal) get frisky and high-strung on windy days. It could pay to be more alert and skittish on windy days in the wild. Windy day hikes can provide close encounters with wildlife that haven’t heard you coming.

Nocturnal mice probably love dark, windy nights as now their predators are missing two of their five senses and they have a much better chance to avoid appearing on the search and destroy radar screen.

On a still night an owl can hear a mouse rustling at over 100 meters and know exactly where it is. They can catch a mouse in a totally darkened room, and great horned owls can snatch a mouse snuffling along 50 centimeters below the snow surface. If you see what looks like a miniature snow angel, it’s the imprint of one of these flying tigers.

Owls’ ears are asymmetrically positioned and a sound’s intensity and arrival will vary minutely between the ears. This allows them to locate their prey with 1 degree of accuracy. Owls have a definite round “face.” This facial disc is really a sound dish for the ears located unseen to the sides of the eyes. Distinctive bristle type feathers here help collect and amplify the sound, while others are exceptionally soft to allow as much sound as possible through. Any tufts of feathers sticking up on top of the head are not ears but display feathers. Owls also have soft feathers on their body and leading edges of the wings. This enables them to fly absolutely silently.

Owls’ eyes are much better than ours. Estimates of their night vision go up to several thousand times better than a human’s. Only cats rival them.

Owls also have exceptional long-distance vision. Like a camera’s telephoto lens their eyes are huge, too large to move around inside their head. Instead owls move their head to look around them.

They can rotate their necks through 270 degrees and after looking behind them will quickly snap back around to the front, sometimes giving the impression they can do the exorcist thing and rotate through 360 degrees. They can’t but it looks that way.

Owls look forward so both eyes see the same thing. Like us, this gives good depth perception but a limited field of vision. We can see about 180 degrees; an owl sees 110 degrees. Their eyesight is like a tightly focused searchlight that they scan around with their necks.

Owls and cats can see in a heavy forest with only starlight to see by. Heavy cloud cover makes the forest too dark to see, and an owl will rely on its hearing to hunt. On dark windy nights, owls tend not to hunt at all.

Owls are attached to all sorts of myths. They are regarded as wise, perhaps from their association with the Greek goddess Pallas Athene, the god of war and wisdom. Athene herself may have originated from an earlier Mesopotamian goddess of death Lilith, who had talons and a whole flock of owls.

Owls are not wise. As birds go they have less brainpower than geese. They hunt by instinct, not thought. Their large eyes and attentive gaze (they can’t move their eyes) back up this image of wisdom.

The link with death is more understandable and common in many cultures. Owls are associated with darkness, they have haunting calls, and they glide around as shadows of ghosts. An owls cry is still regarded by many as a harbinger of death.

Owls have many calls, and a “Star Wars” junkie figured he’d overdosed on the movie when deep in the forest he swore he could hear a laser gun battle after a bout of drinking. Boreal owls have an alarm call very similar to a laser’s high-pitched pulse. An owl’s calls are probably the only way you’ll ever know there’s an owl around. I kind of like to hear strange noises in the night.

A silent forest is scarier than a noisy one. Just ask a mouse.

Alan Braunholtz, raft guide and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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