Thursday, December 30, 2004

Alice and Her Eyes

Alice has been in to the vet a few times in the six years she's lived with us. (She has to go to a vet that's also a raptor rehabilitator. Thankfully there's one only an hour away.) Two of those visits were because she scratched her eye. I swear I felt like a mom who's first child was getting their first shots. To examine Alice's eyes, they had to hold her down, hold her eye open, put in special drops, and look at it with an ultraviolet light. Alice, of course, was doing her screaming chitters the whole time. I was seriously on the verge of tears hearing her screaming away in the exam room. Uff da!

The treatment involved putting a triple antibiotic cream in her eye, twice a day. There was NO WAY we could hold her down for that twice a day without seriously jeopardizing our relationship. So we used her fear of dogs to our advantage. Each time she needed the goo put in her eye, I took her outside, my husband petted the dog, and Alice stood on the glove on my first all bug-eyed. I was able to squirt the stuff in her eye without her even blinking. Worked slick.

This worked for both scratched eyes, which happened less than a year apart.

Alice apparently still scratches her eyes from time to time. Last night was one of those times. It's fairly easy to tell when she's done it--she keeps the scratched eye shut most of the time. It's shut virtually ALL the time with a bad scratch, and only when she's totally relaxed with a very minor scratch. Last night was just a minor scratch, but it was still noticeable by her behavior. This morning she's still favoring it just slightly, but I don't think it's bad enough for a trip to the vet.

So how does she scratch her eye? I've never seen her do it, so I'm not sure. My best guess, though, is that she's not as careful as she should be when she's scratching her face. It's a delicate proposition to itch/scratch your face with such a big old talon! Not having her eye completely closed and being a few millimeters off with her talon would result in scratching her eye. But again, that's just a guess.

I'm hoping it's done bugging her by tonight or tomorrow morning.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Squeaks & Allopreening

Alice has an almost instinctive reaction when she hears squeaky sounds--one of her feet will instantly clench. It's so fast it's like it just skips her brain and goes right to a foot. For instance today someone was screwing into some wood outside of the nature center, and Alice was standing on her Astroturf-covered perch. I heard the screw squeak in the wood and just a fraction of a second later I heard Alice's foot crunch the Astroturf. There were a few more squeaks and a clench to follow each squeak.

You can do really nasty things with this knowledge. If Alice happens to have hold of a hand or is standing on a leg and someone squeaks (gee, no one would ever do that on purpose would they?), the squeeze-ee finds out the hard way just how fast and hard she clenches her feet after a squeak. She's never broken the skin doing this, but she really can cut off any and all circulation, and depending on talon placement it can REALLY hurt! Point bruises where the tip of each talon digs in are likely.

On a different subject, Alice has been very hooty lately, but she just plain is not tolerating any allopreening this year. Generally mated owls will preen each other around the facial disc as sort of a pair-bond strengthening thing. In previous years Alice has allowed this. When she really got into it she would close the eye on the side that was being preened by me or my husband, then after a while she'd turn her head so we would do the other side. She even sat for an hour of this once! Not this year. Any time I get my fingers up by her face she makes it quite clear she doesn't like it (by chittering, and if I persist, by biting.) So I try it with my nose, which can be a dangerous proposition, but hey, it's more like a beak than a finger is. Each time she jerks her head around and bites at my nose. I haven't been bit yet...this year that is. Pain is a good teacher, and let me tell you, it hurts when you get your nose bit! I guess that's called sticking your nose where it doesn't belong....

Monday, December 13, 2004

Hooting In My Ear

Nothing too terribly exciting going on in Alice's world right now (that I'm aware of anyway.) We've been hooting some each evening, and she still checks out both her nest box and her next basket. I've given her food (leftovers) when she's been in her basket and her box, and she'll take it from me. (She doesn't normally take food from my fingers otherwise.)

I try to encourage her a little bit to use the basket, since it's roomier and she fits better in it. So sometimes when we hoot I will purposely go over and stand next to her basket. This spot also happens to be right next to one of her perches. Twice now she has flown over to the perch, walked over to me, preened my head a bit and then my ear, winding up hooting while my ear was in her bill. It comes out more like "Ha, ha, ha-ha-ha, ha" with her bill open like that instead of the normal "hoos." (She normally has her bill shut completely when she hoots.) And it's a lot louder from my perspective!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Visit From a Screech-Owl

Sunday night someone brought us an Eastern Screech-Owl (a red one) that they found in their cow parlor literally up to its neck in runny manure. (I guess you could say it was in deep doo-doo.) After a couple of baths, a blow dryer, and some time to preen he looked good as new.

But his defensive strategy worked perfectly on us. Each time we looked at him or picked him up he froze, mostly closed his eyes, and wouldn't even move. It really made we wonder if he was OK. But he sang his trilling song during the night, so that seemed to be a good sign.

The next morning, he of course froze when I checked on him. Now that he was dry, preened, and looked like an owl I wanted to check him more closely for any possible injuries. I carefully picked the little "stick" up, but the second I got him above the edge of the box, he bolted out of my hand. Guess his "stick owl" strategy worked quite well. But where did he go? Around the corner, up the stairs, and straight into Alice's room! Probably the worst place for a screech-owl in our entire house, since Great Horned Owls eat screech-owls, and Alice was perched on the top of the door to her room.

While Alice's eyes were bugging out at this unexpected visitor, I zipped upstairs and quickly snatched up the screech before Alice could even think about eating it (she's a slow thinker.) But when I had the little owl safely in hand and was heading back downstairs, my husband reported that Alice was licking her chops! She does this "licking her chops"/soft bill smacking thing only during and after eating, and when she's thinking about when I bring her tray of dead gopher in front of her. Evidently she recognized the screech as food.

Whether there is a connection or not, Alice got adventurous last night. Normally she just stays in her room or in the upstairs hallway at night, but last night she went exploring. I found her in the living room when I got up this morning, then she went upstairs into our bedroom (pushing the door open herself), and now she's here in the office. Maybe she just felt like exploring...but then again maybe she's looking for that little screech-owl. It's not common for her to run all over the place like this.

On a side note, the screech got a "clean" bill of health from the rehabilitator and was released back where it was found last night.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Neighbor Owl in the Chicken Coop

The neighbor owl caught in the chicken coop. I think it's a male based on the wide head in proportion to its body size.

Wow! I just got to meet one of the neighbor owls up close and personal!

My brother-in-law came over about 8:30 tonight and asked if I wanted to get an owl out of the chicken coop (which is only a few hundred yards away from our place.) OF COURSE I was interested! I threw on a jacket, grabbed my leather gloves, and headed over with him.

Apparently the chicken coop door is often left open at night. That would explain why a few chickens have disappeared lately. Inside the coop, all the chickens were on the left side, squawking away, and the Great Horned Owl was on the right side, all by itself, with kind of a bug-eyed expression.

I didn't really believe I could just walk up to the owl and catch it, but it just stood there. So I slowly started walking toward it, talking quietly (it helps to know a little Great Horned Owl language...I did some soft chittery grunts.) It actually seemed to get a tiny bit calmer as I got closer, and even started panting (normally they don't like to pant when they think they are in immediate danger...but it was obviously stressed by the whole situation.) I slowly reached out one gloved hand toward its legs, and very slowly moved one hand around behind its back.

When Alice is stressed, sometimes stroking her toes calms her. This completely wild owl actually let me start stroking its toes! When I thought it was as calm as it was going to get, I quickly grabbed it. I actually caught it! Surprised me! (and the owl.)

Oddly enough, this bird was quite pale, almost as pale as Alice. It differed from Alice in that it had more of a "black eyeliner" look, and its eyelids were black (Alice's are pale.) Its feet were just as pale as Alice's, but had no markings on them...Alice's have some dark stripes. Of course it was smaller than Alice (every Great Horned Owl I've ever seen is smaller than Alice...she's a HUGE female.) So since I'm used to looking at a moose of an owl, they all look like males to me (males are smaller than females.) I forgot to get a good look at the size of the head relative to the body...males have fat heads in proportion to their bodies. It had a very thick bill...which makes me think it's an old bird. It also had an old injury to the cere that looked like it had healed and scarred a long time ago.

Anyway, I sweet-talked my brother-in-law into scooting home to get a camera, which he kindly did. Then I asked if he'd drive both me and the owl back to my place so we could give it the pocket gopher that was thawing out for Alice's supper and release it. He did.

The owl was amazingly calm. I never would have imagined a wild Great Horned Owl could be so calm. Of course I'm sure it helped that while we were waiting for the camera, I stroked its ear tufts, forehead, and around its facial disk...I know all the sweet spots on a Great Horned.

So my husband (who had been on the phone), grabbed the gopher when we got home, and I gave the gopher to the owl while I still held it. It crunched down on the spine several times like it was killing it, so I'm pretty sure it recognized it as food.

I set the owl down (with the gopher in its mouth.) It only took a split second for it to drop the gopher and take off. The "neighbor owls" seem to include our yard as part of their territory (and they hoot with Alice), so I'm sure the bird knew exactly where it was. We left the gopher in case it decided to come back for it, and started another one thawing for Alice.

Maybe the whole experience was traumatic enough that this bird will stop raiding the chicken coop. Of course it will now have the extra deterrent of a closed door! Now I just wish I knew for sure if this bird was the male or the female...maybe when I look at the photos I'll have a better idea. Then again, if it's an old bird, I would suspect it's the male. We got a new female with a very distinctive wheezy hoot a couple of years ago....

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Nest Decisions

Well, I thought Alice's new nest basket was a done deal. Shows what I know.

Alice was in the basket this morning before going to work, but thankfully had assumed her sleeping perch on the bifold door before it was time to leave. I have a sneaking suspicion it's going to be tough to get her out of her nest basket if/when that needs to happen.

She was "up" early today...she decided it was time to get up and DO something by 3:30 PM. That meant that instead of sitting and dozing on her perch in my office at work, she was hopping onto my desk. Thankfully people in town have been saving egg cartons for Alice. For whatever reason, she LOVES to shred them. And there were stacks of them at work. Normally Alice leaves them alone there, but this afternoon she worked on shredding some. She still bounced around from pile to pile, and once landed on the arm of my chair. (Yes, she can manage all this while tethered.)

So tonight I figured she'd be into her nest basket right away. I didn't catch her in it, but she was perched close to and facing it everytime I checked in her room. After paging me a second time with a hoot, I came up to check on her again. She started getting clucky, but went straight into her OLD nest box without even looking at the nest basket!

Maybe the nest basket is just a novelty...she's very curious about new things. I've got a lot to learn.

Alice standing on her new nest basket, with her nest box to the right.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

New Nest BASKET!

Alice got her Christmas present early. We (as in my husband) put up a nest basket for Alice this afternoon.

Alice's former "nest box" was never intended to be a was intended to be a hide box--a place where she could go and feel hidden when she was scared (like when Ken mowed the lawn, etc.) Alice did use it as a place to hide, but somewhere along the way she started treating it like a nest, making soft clucking/grunting noises while scratching around in it. The Astroturf the bottom was lined with of course wouldn't give when she scratched at it, so we added some bits of shredded up egg cartons (the ones Alice shredded herself.) This gave her something to rearrange, and she seemed to like it.

After visiting The Owl Foundation and seeing the nest baskets their Great Horned (and Great Gray) Owls use, I decided Alice needed a proper nest basket. This entailed a trip to Wal-Mart for a sturdy laundry basket. Yes, a laundry basket. That's what the owls are happily nesting in at The Owl Foundation!

Alice has always been interested in laundry baskets anyway...whether they be full of dirty clothes or neatly folded clean clothes. So this wasn't going to be a real stretch for her. We tested the basket idea before mounting it on a wall to be sure she was OK with it: I filled the basket with crumpled newspapers and set it on a stool with a back (her hallway perch) in the corner of her room where I though the nest basket would work best. It didn't take 5 minutes for Alice to hop over to it to check it out.

I discovered one thing: height matters. (Guess I should have known that.) The test basket was at least a foot and a half lower than her nest box, and she kept looking up into her nest box as if to compare. Then she went up into her nest box. So I figured the basket would be OK as long as it was as high as or higher than her current nest box.

Then I loaded up on wood shavings from my father-in-law's little wood shop. I lined the basket with newspaper to help keep the shavings from just falling out, then filled it up with wood shavings. For good measure, I added a few sticks around the perimeter of the basket. Then we tested Alice with the wood shavings.

Yep, they were interesting. She really liked it when we rustled our fingers in the shavings to get her attention...apparently those were "mousy" noises. Eventually she hopped in. She seemed intrigued that she could dig down in this stuff, but whatever was going on outside quickly took her attention away from the basket.

So today we finally had long enough anchor bolts, a big enough drill bit, and all other necessary do-jobbies to mount the basket. Normally Alice sleeps on the bi-fold door to her room (with her ear tufts smashed flap up against the ceiling), but today I made the mistake of leaving the office door open. She got up and moved onto her favorite office perch--the hanging files on top of the desk. She actually SITS on them.

So while she was in the office, Ken was next door in her room drilling holes and mounting the basket. When he was done, I couldn't resist moving her back into her room to get her reaction.

It didn't take long (for an owl.) Within a few minutes she was in her new nest basket. Again, she periodically looked over at her nest box, but she seemed to be less and less interested in the nest box all the time. The really cool thing for her was that when she scratched the bottom of THIS nest, she actually dug a depression!

She's been in and out of this nest all day (but not back in her nest box.) She's played with the sticks, but I'm betting before long they'll all be dropped on the floor. As she sits in her nest, she gets kind of a dreamy, far-away look, as she stares off into space at nothing. Maybe she's processing instincts that tell her this is a good nest??? Who knows, but from what I can tell, she likes it.

I've read that male Great Horned Owls bring food to the nest even before the egg thing happens, apparently to show that they can provide. So when Alice was sitting in her nest basket at dusk, I brought her her left over pocket gopher head that she had so neatly cached by the office door. She politely took it and set it down in the nest. Not long after she left the nest and hopped to the nearest perch...and started hooting. These weren't the riled up hoots she's been doing this fall...she went right into her monotone, tail-cocked, hormonal hoots. I assumed we were hooting to claim this new nest as part of our territory or something, so I joined in. We hooted maybe 10 minutes before some mousy sounds started coming from the corner of her room (yes, the mice are probably moving into the house now that it's getting cold out, but don't think that having an owl in the house means that our house stays mouse-free!) But her hoots were quite frequent, yet not loud like they normally are when she hoots faster.

At any rate, I assume they were hoots of approval.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

My "Improper" Behavior

I wonder sometimes why Alice puts up with my "improper" behavior takes me so long to figure things out!

Alice has lived with us for over six years now, and I just figured out this fall that I'm supposed to go over to her and bow my head when we meet...for example when I first get up in the morning, or when she gets up in the evening. I'll go to the edge of her perch, bow my head, then she walks over to me and bows her head so close that we're almost touching. I've wondered if this should lead to some bill-rubbing or preening of each other, but apparently not! I get a little wallop on my head with her beak if I try anything like that.

I really do wish there was a book that explained how I'm supposed to behave as the "male" of a Great Horned Owl pair. So many little things to figure out...and each thing seems to take me years to catch on to! At least Alice isn't ready to give up on me yet.

She still likes to have almost nightly hooting sessions with me...but she starts out pretty rared up with some full-volume, emphatic hoots with the extra "HOO, HOO, HOO!" on the end, and she throws in begging calls here and there. Sounds quite weird. But after a few minutes she settles down into her regular monotone, tail-cocked hoots. She ALWAYS wants to hoot longer than me...somehow I'm just not into hooting with her for half an hour or more at a time. (Seems like either Alice or my husband winds up feeling neglected.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Maybe She Missed Me???

Well, I'm back from my visit to The Owl Foundation, and Alice managed to behave herself. She had a good appetite, but didn't leave her room much at all (other than one foray downstairs in the middle of the night while my husband was at work. It's easy to tell when she's been downstairs...she ALWAYS knocks over a little fake owl on the entertainment center and takes the throw blanket off my husband's rocking chair.)

When I got home, I went up to Alice's room almost right away. She took one look at me and flew straight to her nest and started making her soft little grunting sounds as she walked around and scratched in it. Then we hooted some together, but I'm sure she wanted to hoot for a lot longer than I did--I was in need of some supper, but when I left, she actually did one more hoot when I was out of sight. Normally she stops hooting as soon as she can't see me anymore.

Yesterday evening she did some of her odd begging calls, which I'm pretty sure are meant to get my attention (this usually works.) And last night at 11:45 PM she did some good, loud "wac-wac" calls. Normally they come out more as a "hmwah, hmwah" (less volume and less accented), but it seems like when she knows she needs to wake me up with her calls they turn into the full "wac-wacs." To make these sounds, Alice starts with her beak closed, and quickly opens it up as she makes the sound. (This is unlike a hoot, which is given with her beak closed.) Generally, a closed beak gives more of the "ooo" sounds and an open beak gives the "aaa" sounds.

And yes, I did get up when she did her "wac-wacs", but she stopped the second she heard me moving around. She knows how to get what she wants.

Thursday, November 11, 2004


Alice started in on some goofy begging type calls that turned into "wac, wac!" calls at 1:30 AM. It's one of her ways of getting attention, and she pretty much just does it as we get into mating season. I dragged my butt out of bed and hooted with her a few minutes before crawling back into bed. That seemed to appease her somewhat.

I'm up in the wee hours this morning....I'm off to visit Kay McKeever (the Owl Lady of Canada) at the Owl Foundation in Vineland, Ontario. I hope I get some new insights into owl behavior while I'm there. We'll see how Alice takes my 3 night absence...she's never had to deal with that before. My poor husband will bear the brunt of things as he's staying home to take care of her.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Hormonal Hooting

Well, Alice's hormones are in full swing. I was getting a little worried about her because she didn't start her "hormonal" hooting until a month later than previous years, but Halloween brought the first of the "hormonal" hoots.

So what's a hormonal hoot? It's quite different from her regular hoots. Her posture changes--she leans way forward, cocks her tail almost straight up like a gigantic House Wren, and her hoot is a strict basic hoot with no variation, and it's a flat monotone without the usual inflections.

I think I may have turned her on this accident. One of the wild "neighbor" owls was up hooting fairly close to the house around 6 AM this morning. I wanted to try to record him, but he shut up when I opened the window. So I figured I'd hoot some to see if he'd start up again. He didn't, but Alice started doing some quiet chitters from the hallway (I was in her room, hooting out the window. Yes, I admit I'm more than a little weird.) They seemed to be nice, content chitters, which I've never heard her do before while I was hooting. Usually she hoots with me, or she doesn't say anything.

When I gave up on the neighbor male, I went into the hallway to check on Alice. Her pupils slowly dilated until they were quite large, even though I had the hall light on. It didn't seem to be an aggressive thing at all...if anything it almost seemed submissive.

I went about my getting-ready-for-work routine, and she went back to her regular scratch-at-the-window-for-attention routine. But by the time I was ready to go to work, she was settled in her nest box, and again her pupils dilated when I came near. I decided to let her play hooky from work for the day.

According to my husband (who works nights), Alice spent most of the day perched right by her nest, which she usually doesn't do. When I came home (late) tonight, she was still perched by her nest. She clucked around in her nest awhile while scratching at the Astroturf lining (we tried sticks before...she just threw them out), and again her pupils dilated.

After a bit of zoning out with enlarged pupils, she hopped out of her nest, and started in on some emphatic hoots (regular hoots with a very loud HOO, HOO, HOO! added to the end), so I started hooting with her. Then she dropped into the hormonal hooting.

We went on for over 15 minutes, but by the way she was looking at something outside in the dark at tree level, I'm pretty sure we called in some-birdy. She kept staring at the same spot and hooting, but if we had a visitor, (s)he didn't say anything. I, of course, couldn't see a danged thing out in the dark, so after Alice had finished hooting I resorted to a spotlight. I still didn't see anything. So I guess I was in the dark in more ways than one.

Alice is now 7.5 years old. Yes, she's a full-blown human imprint and thinks I'm her mate. But we haven't had any eggs to date. I figure it will probably happen sooner or later. In some ways I look forward to it as a chance to see more behaviors, but in some ways I dread it, because I'm kind of clueless as to what my exact role is, and I'm pretty sure if I don't do the right thing at the right time, she's going to let me know in a less-than-tactful manner.

Hormonal hoot posture--body horizontal, tail almost vertical, and throat poofed out.

Sunday, November 07, 2004


Alice just finished up her bath. She's not an overly fastidious bird...bathing once every few weeks is plenty for her. Rain does seem to put her in the mood sometimes, though.

Alice's bath pan is more of a tub--it's a 2x3 foot black plastic tub that holds a heck of a lot of water. And considering we don't have running water on the second floor of the house (which is where Alice's room is) it's quite a pain in the butt to keep the water clean. Ken, my husband, usually fills it with a hose, and it's really only good for one bath.

Ken noticed Alice standing on the edge of her bath pan this evening, eyeing the water. You can't just jump in you know....owls have to think things over a LONG time before they do anything. So to speed the process up, Ken started spraying her with a water bottle. She really wanted a bath, but she hopped over to her bow perch, then over to her drinking water bowl, then to the tub. THEN she finally hopped in the tub. She much prefers it when we keep squirting her while she bathes. She's good at getting her underside and face all good and wet, but she's not so good at the back, hence the squirt bottle.

The whole bathing sequence is basically what a little kid would do--hop in, splash around like crazy for 3 minutes max, then hop out. Alice then heads right to the railing in the upstairs hallway to preen for an hour or more to get herself back to normal. It's funny though...she really gets weighted down by the water...she can hardly hop up to the railing when normally she doesn't have any problem.

She's happily preening/drying away now.