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....