Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Wheezy Has Guts!

It’s getting toward mating season for owls, so that means more hooting, more interesting interactions, and less sleep for me.

I’m always somewhat groggy at our local Chamber of Commerce's 7 AM meetings, but I was doubly so on November 17 thanks to some interesting goings-on in the owl world at our house from 1:30-3:00 AM that morning. I'm just slow at reporting it because we got a new computer and it's taken me forever to get it all set up properly!

I’m still amazed at how well my ears are keyed in to the hooting of Great Horned Owls. I woke up at 1:30 AM that morning to the hooting of Victor and Virginia, our current resident pair, over at the neighboring farm roughly 400 yards away. This was with the windows closed from a dead sleep, mind you.

Victor is a regular hooter, but Virginia is an owl of few hoots. So it was somewhat notable that she was hooting. But frankly, she and Victor sounded pretty excited. They were hooting very rapidly, and every now and then Victor broke into some excited “hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo’s”.

They hooted at that farm for a while, then came over and hooted in the pine trees just outside our bedroom window. They sounded like they were toward the tops of the trees, but I couldn’t see them despite the bright moonlight and fresh snow. What I wouldn’t give for some good night vision!!

Then Victor and Virginia moved off toward the road along the south border of our property. All the while Wendell, the previously resident male, hooted alone off to the southeast along the dry run, where he had been forced to move after Victor gave him the boot last winter.

Things quieted down and I started to doze off. But I was jarred to my senses when I heard a single owl hooting in our pine trees soon after the other hooting had stopped. It was Wheezy! She’s Wendell’s mate, and she and Wendell had not come into our yard since early last winter before they lost the territorial battle with Victor and Virginia.

It’s one thing for one owl to sneak into someone else’s territory, but it’s a totally different matter to enter it and blatantly announce their presence by hooting! And this was the female of the pair, and I’d always heard (and had no reason not to believe) that it was the males who did most of the territorial work of the pair.

So here was Wheezy, hooting away right outside the bedroom window. (And me, lying in bed with the window open at 13 degrees Fahrenheit with my tape recorder running.) Wendell hooted back to her from the southeast, and Victor picked up hooting to the south. Virginia never hooted again that night.

Wheezy flew back and forth between the pine trees and Wendell. I can only assume she was trying to get him to follow her into the pines and reassert their claim. But she also flew off to the south and hooted…and from the best I could tell from listening out the bedroom window, that’s where Victor was hooting!

Things didn’t seem to get heated between Victor and Wheezy. Either there’s a “boys don’t hit girls” rule in owls too, or else Wheezy’s larger size was sufficient intimidation (females are larger than males). Or maybe I’m totally missing the point. But as far as I can tell, Wheezy’s got guts!

And so concludes another episode of “As the World Turns – The Owl Version.” Stayed tuned to find out: Is Wheezy thinking of leaving Wendell for Victor? Will Wheezy successfully drive Victor and Virginia back from whence they came? Is Wendell just a wimp? Will anyone lay eggs this winter? Will Alice lay eggs this winter?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Hungry Enough To Eat A Mouse?

Well, we actually took a vacation! Alice stayed home for four days and three nights all by herself, other than my brother-in-law Karsten checking in on her every night to throw out leftover gopher parts, bring her fresh food, and otherwise make sure she was OK. We didn't get any kind of "welcome home" from her until five minutes AFTER we got home. Guess she's a slow processor. But at least we got some hearty "wac-wac" calls and loud, tail-cocked hoots. It made me feel missed at least a little.

Lately, including while we've been gone, Alice has had a fantastic appetite. I finally got around to listing her weights by month and realized that September and October are her lowest weights for the year, and January is the highest. That means she has to pack on those pounds (OK, ounces in her case) right about now. And she's got the appetite to say she's doing it.

Normally Alice eats half of an average sized pocket gopher each night. Since she's been eating well, I gave her a whole small/mediumish gopher last night. This morning what was left? Just the face. No sign of the rest. And I believe she ate the whole thing when I saw the size of the monstrous pellet she threw up just before we left work today!

Sometimes after getting home from work Alice will drag out some cached gopher from the night before for a snack. No gopher to drag out tonight. But we caught a field mouse in a trap in the house last night (those of you who think Alice catches mice are crazy!), and just for the heck of it I place it in her nest this morning while she watched and I made the repeated male "hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo...." call. She watched, but didn't pay close attention.

But she remembered it tonight. After a while, she went to her nest, hopped in, and picked up the mouse. I couldn't believe she was hungry enough to eat something as bad tasting (according to Alice) as a mouse! So I watched.

She picked it up in her bill. She grabbed it in her foot. She looked at it. She put it in her bill again. She rearranged it in her mouth. She dropped it. She looked at it. She picked it up again. On and on for at least five minutes. Then finally I heard a crunch! I looked up to see one bite going down the hatch! Then she grabbed the rest of the body like she was going to send it down whole! She didn't look overly enthused though, and after one almost-attempt, she dropped it in the nest and hopped out, never to look back at it again. I looked at it to see how much she ate--it was only the face. The ears were even still on it.

Guess she wasn't hungry enough to eat a mouse. Moral of the story? If you're starving and have the choice of eating a mouse or a pocket gopher, pick the pocket gopher.

Note the enthusiastic (not!) expression on her face when she's holding the mouse.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Hormones Have Kicked In!

Hoots can have a variety of inflections and meanings behind them. But what you hear on the bird song CDs is nearly always the standard "territorial" hoot, which I prefer to call either a tail-cocked hoot or a hormonal hoot.These hoots happen almost exclusively during the lead up to and in the mating season. (In southern Minnesota, that would be roughly September through March.) "Hormonal" hoots are very distinct from other hoots: the tail is cocked nearly straight up, the owl leans way forward, and the hooting is repeated over and over and over again, almost in a monotone unless there's a reason to be getting excited, in which case the pitch changes.Victor, our resident male as of early 2005, has been hooting regularly for at least a month already. I hadn't heard Virginia, his mate, and was starting to get a little worried about her. I hadn't heard any kids doing begging calls this fall either, so I doubt they successfully raised any young...but had something happened to Virginia and that's why there were no young?Alice had yet to do any hormonal hooting herself, so I wasn't terribly worried. But Wendell, the previous resident male and his mate, Wheezy, had BOTH been hooting quite a bit just off to the east. I'm starting to think Wheezy is a backseat driver...if Wendell's hooting, she better hoot too just to make sure the job gets done right. And apparently Virginia's pretty confident that Victor can do it right all by himself. (Which he can--he booted Wendell and Wheezy out of their established territory last winter.)Early this morning Alice's hormones kicked in. At 4:45 AM I woke up to Alice doing a tail-cocked hoot-a-thon in her room, two doors down from our bedroom. Since it was the first hoot-a-thon of the season, I got up and joined in. Way off in the distance, even through the window, I could hear Victor and Virginia putting in their two cents worth. Apparently Virginia was fine...she just likes to use her hoots on Alice instead of the other owls.I didn't turn the light on, but Alice was nicely silhouetted against her window. The breath coming through her nostrils with each hoot (they hoot with their mouths closed) made a little steamy spot on the window. And every now and then her bill tapped the window as her whole body heaved with each individual syllable.Fifteen minutes and Alice got distracted...probably by one of the wild cats that has adopted our yard. So her ear tufts slowly lowered, as did her tail, and she became her normal self again.I'm not sure if this has anything to do with anything, but I made more progress towards being a male owl last night. She had been accepting her evening gopher from my fingers every night, then taking it into her nest basket to eat it. Then I figured, "Hey, isn't the male supposed to lure the female to potential nest sites with food?" I had seen a video of Jackson, the human-imprinted male Great Horned Owl featured in a wonderful children's book, doing a steady "hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo..." vocalization when presenting food to his human "mate", Nick.So I tried standing by Alice's nest basket and making the "hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo" vocalization. I certainly got her interest. It only took a minute or two for her to fly to the perch next to me, lean forward, and accept the gopher from my fingers. Then she took it into her nest to eat it. Maybe I did something right and that got her a little excited??? Who knows. All I can say is that I'm a SLOW learner. It only took me 7 years to figure out that little maneuver.And humans who work with owls think they aren't bright. I can't imagine what they think about us....

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Artificial Nest for the Neighbor Owls

Yep, I'm off the deep end. We just put up an artificial nest in an attempt to get the neighbor Great Horned Owls to nest in our yard, right outside our bedroom window. If they do nest here, we could be courting danger. They could be aggressive toward humans so close to their nest, Alice could have a cow over them being out in the yard all the time, or who knows what else could happen.

I've been working on taping the various calls of the Great Horned Owl, since no one has ever done a vocal study on the species, and I have a dying curiosity about their vocalizations. Bruce Marcot, the sound specialist for the Global Owl Project, has graciously spent a huge amount of his time transferring my taped calls to computer files that can be analyzed or played. But I'm lacking in the calls-around-the-nest department. Since it's unlikely we'll ever have Alice attempt to hatch out a fertilized Great Horned Owl egg, the next best thing I could figure to do was to lure the resident owls to nest in our yard.

Will they nest in this nest? We'll have to wait and see. I can pretty much guarantee that they'll find it, since the neighbor owls (especially the male, who I've named Victor) spend a lot of time hooting in the pine trees in our yard. As a matter of fact, I went to work awfully groggy a few days ago because Victor hooted from the pines from 1:15 AM until I got up at 7:00 AM. And it wasn't just his regular hoot. It was his wound up hoot that sounds like a version of "Let's Go Boogie Down!", with squawks to fill in the minutes between wild hoots. I got plenty on tape, but didn't get plenty of sleep. So they'll find the nest for sure.

Will they use it? is another question. It will probably depend on how many other suitable nest sites are in their territory. I have seen several nests that might work, but none look overly sturdy for a family of Great Horneds. And Great Horneds are tough on nests, so they can't often use them for more than a few years before they have to look for a new nest. Another thing to consider is that our yard is near the east boundary of their territory. I'm not sure if that would bother them, or if they'll just boot the former residents farther to the east if they do choose to nest in our yard.

At the very least, I should be able to observe them checking out the nest. I'm either blessed (or cursed as the case may be) to be extremely tuned in to Great Horned Owl vocalizations, so I normally wake up when they're vocalizing in the yard. (Believe it or not, I once heard them hooting in the yard with the room humidifier and furnace running, windows closed, and silicone earplugs in my ears!)

The artificial nest is made from the plans in the book "Woodworking for Wildlife" put out by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Ironically, there is no wood in it. It's made from a cone of chicken wire with a cone of tarpaper inside. Then we had to build a stick nest inside, wiring some of the larger sticks to the wire frame for stability. I sure gained a new respect for birds who build nests! I couldn't have done it without cheating and using grapevines and wire.

The next issue was where the nest should go. I found a spot in the pines (again, directly out our bedroom window) where there was a clear flight path for the owls up into the tree. There were two branches making a fork right up against the trunk, so that was the place it would go.

But how to get it up into the tree? I had visions of an extension ladder in the bucket of a tractor raised to full extension, but that didn't seem too safe. I didn't know anyone with climbing spikes, and there weren't enough branches to climb it otherwise. So after quite a while of hemming and hawing, I got up the nerve to call the CEO of Tri-County Electric Cooperative, our local electric company.

If I remember right, Brian Krambeer said "yes" before I even finished explaining and asking. COOL! They just would like to take some photos for the newsletter. Double cool.

Today was the day. Just before a storm came in, two of the linemen came with a boom truck. One had no idea they were here to put up an owl nest. :-) I explained where I wanted the nest and how to put it up there (keeping wire away from anyplace the owls' feet might go), and they took care of the rest like pros. A dead branch came down and another small one was trimmed out of the way. Then the nest was wired into the fork in the branches up against the trunk. The final touch was adding the cedar wood shavings as a lining for the nest. Ta da!

I do have to say the nest looks much smaller up in the tree than it did when I was working on it. It's somewhat oblong, but over two feet in the longest dimension.

Now it's time to just sit and wait and hope.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Bill Flake

Owl bills and owl talons self-sharpen as they grow. Somehow they manage to maintain the proper shape and thickness despite breaking, wear and tear, and clipping or dremmelling as in Alice's case.

Yesterday when Ken was cleaning up Alice's disaster on the stairs he found part of Alice's bill. Don't freak out---it didn't break off or anything. What happened was a layer on the front edge of her bill simply flaked off.

This has happened before. I have flakes from the side of her bill and the front edge from a few years ago.

The flake itself is about 1 mm thick at the edges, but I think it's thicker in the center.

Does Alice's bill look weird now? Just a little rough and unpolished. But it's still 100% functional. Just not quite as thick as it was a couple of days ago.

Who knew?

Monday, August 29, 2005

Owl Food and a Volleyball Team

Alice's favorite food, hands down, is the pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius.) This works out quite well since there is a bounty on pocket gophers in our area--for now. At one time not so long ago, most farm kids trapped gophers as a way to earn some spending money since we didn't get allowances in those days. But now, precious few farm kids trap gophers. There are, however, just a few self-taught trappers who have learned the art of trapping gophers. Alice's food supply comes from these trappers.

Alice only eats about 200 gophers a year. My main two trappers bring in over 2,000 gophers per year combined. So besides picking up food for Alice, we also pick up all the excess and redistribute the food to wildlife rehabilitators to save them on their food bills. It seems the other birds are in agreement with Alice--pocket gophers are the best. Marge Gibson in Antigo, WI has sick and injured eagles that sometimes won't eat fish...but they'll eat gophers!

So it was that last week my husband was doing the "gopher run." He had gone to Eitzen, MN to clean out the trapper's nearly-overflowing freezer and transfer them into one of our gopher freezers. He had a couple of other errands he needed to run on the way, and since 300 gophers in the back of a little 2-door Geo Tracker don't thaw out fast on a 75 degree day, he also stopped at Dairy Queen to treat himself to a blizzard.

Apparently the volleyball team from the nearby school was waiting for a bus at Dairy Queen. My husband sat down to enjoy his blizzard inside while the girls milled around outside. Then he heard a horrifying scream--like someone was being murdered!

It only took him a second to find the problem. One of the volleyball players gathered out front happened to look inside his Tracker. She was greeted by the site of 300 dead pocket gophers, front feet removed for bounty, in open-toped boxes. I can't even imagine what this would look like to someone who had no idea what was going on.

So what did the other girls do? They ran over to have a look for themselves! Did my husband rush out to explain the situation. No. He sat inside and laughed his head off.

Kind of reminds me of an incident I heard about where a falconer had just purchased 100+ (dead) day-old chicks to feed to his hawks. He stopped somewhere on the long trip home, and when he returned to his car found a ticket charging him with 100+ accounts of cruelty to animals. No amount of arguing with the authorities would convince them that the chicks were dead when he got them, and he actually had to go to court over the issue!

Thank goodness no police officers noticed our Tracker full of dead gophers. Although we live in a rural enough area that most police officers might just know us and what we do....

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Alice Gets Her Permit!

August 1st was a big day for Alice, my husband, and me. It was the day the Great Horned Owl protection law went into effect in Minnesota.

My goal was to get as much press for this new law (and Alice and the Houston Nature Center) as I could. I think I did all right, thanks to assistance from C.J. Johnson, the outdoor media relations coordinator for Explore Minnesota Tourism. We were on Twin Cities Public Television a week and a half ago, the La Crosse Tribune and Winona Daily News ran prominent articles about it, and I think we were in the Austin Post Bulletin. But we had more to do on The Big Day.

We started the day with a phone interview for Minnesota Public Radio at 6 AM. Alice knew something was up since I was up so early, and she was antsy to get going. So it was easy to get her to chitter into the phone as part of the interview.

Next we were off to the DNR central offices in St. Paul for the official presentation of the first Great Horned Owl special purpose possession permit in Minnesota. Nancy Huonder, the woman in charge of issuing these permits, had invited everyone in the offices to attend, since Alice and I were to give a short presentation afterwards. A photographer from the St. Paul Pioneer Press snapped zillions of photos as Lee Pfannmuller, Director of the Division of Ecological Services, presented us with a plaque with Alice's permit mounted on it...special purpose permit number 1! Thankfully I was also given a paper copy, since I need to carry this permit with me. Since the folks in the central office rarely get to see live animals, Alice's visit was a treat.

From there we headed over to the WCCO television studio in Minneapolis. I'm not used to such security...we had to be buzzed into the building! We were there in plenty of time to give Alice a chance to get used to the set. I put her on the arm of the chair I would be sitting in, but when a remote controlled camera moved, it scared her just enough that she hopped up to the back of the chair and pooped & cecaed...on the chair of course. My husband cleaned up what he could, but you really need to let it dry first, brush it, then hit it with OxyClean to get it completely clean, so the guy there brought us a new chair and said not to worry about it. From there on out Alice was fine in the studio. She actually looked like she was going to doze off when they brought the lights up to tape us.

That was the end of the press for the day, but I needed to return a borrowed mammoth tooth to the Science Museum in St. Paul, so we went there next. The staff enjoyed getting to meet Alice, then we let her take a nap while we got a tour of their fabulous collections. We even got to see many native american pieces that included owl feathers...some even dyed weird colors. I oogled over their collection of Great Horned Owl study skins too. Seems like they were all interesting--either pale, red, dark, big, or something.

We were all exhausted on the ride home, but once Alice was home she got a drink, killed some egg cartons, and took up her perch looking out the window as if it was just another day.

photo courtesy of MN DNR Nongame Wildlife Program

Sunday, July 24, 2005

A Feather of a Different Color

You'd think since I live and work with Alice that I'd catch anything unusual almost right away. I guess I can be a little slow....

A month or two ago as Alice was showering and bathing, I was startled to see that one primary feather on her bad wing was all rusty-reddish. On closer inspection I could see that the wide part of the feather vane (the part normally covered by adjacent feathers) was missing all the dark pigmented stripes it would normally have. The narrow side of the vane (what you would normally see when the feathers are arranged properly and not spread) was normally colored. Both sides of the tip of the feather were also normally colored. Weird!

But I felt dumb. This feather was fully grown, which means it had probably been like this for at least a year! So much for being observant.

I racked my brains to try to figure out what would cause such a weird coloration. Looking back through my notes I found that on April 24, 2003 blood started dripping from a developing feather. Alice had been fussing with it while sitting on her perch at work, and I freaked out when I realized she had blood dripping from her. I knew that there is a strong supply of blood to developing feathers, and there was a chance she could bleed to death if it wasn't stopped. Thankfully it stopped within a minute on its own, before I was even able to compose myself enough to call Alice's vet. Now I'm wondering if she injured that developing feather/feather follicle enough to result in the strange coloration I'm now seeing.

I talked with several owl people to get their theories on this weird feather coloring. Bob Nero noted that his Great Gray Owl, Lady Grayl, is developing white patches on her feathers that increase in size with each successive molt. But it is a complete lack of pigmentation he's seeing in each spot. This could be due to age, since Grayl is 19 years old. Alice is a mere 8 years old.

Injury seems to be the main theory at this point, and I'm thinking it ties in to the bleeding feather from two years ago.

Now it's a waiting game. Will she drop the feather this year? Large owls usually replace all their tail feathers (rectrices) every year, but take 2-3 (or sometimes more) years to replace all their flight feathers on their wings (remiges.) I'm loosing hope that Alice will drop the feather in question this year. But when it does drop, will the replacement feather have the same strange color, or will it be normal? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Alice's Biography

I was working on Alice's bio in preparation for her gig on August 1--going up to the state DNR headquarters to receive the first Great Horned Owl permit issued by the State of Minnesota. I wanted to have a bio ready to hand out to the press, and I thought you all might be interested to see what I've come up with:

Alice the Great Horned Owl bio

Late February or early March 1997 - Alice hatches in an old squirrel’s nest with her brother at the top of a 60 foot tall pine tree on Hogan Street in Antigo, WI.

Late March or early April - Falls out of nest and breaks left wing just above the elbow joint. Cared for by internationally known wildlife rehabilitator Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group, Inc. Wing cannot be healed well enough for flight due to location of fracture.

Spring/summer 1997 - Raised to be an education bird in Gibson’s home, around humans, so she “imprints” on humans and therefore is comfortable around them.

9 September 1998 - Gets a job working for the up-and-coming Houston Nature Center after a federal “work” permit is secured. Moves to Houston, MN to live with handler Karla Kinstler in an outdoor pen.

24 November 1998 - Begins doing public educational programs.

1 October 1999 - Alice’s first radio interview on KG Country in Winona. Chitters into microphone like a pro.

21 December 1999 - Lonely in outside pen and somewhat ill, so moved into Kinstler’s home. This arrangement become permanent.

25 May 2000 - Begins commuting to work at the temporary Houston Nature Center.

11 November 2000 - Alice’s first real, tail-cocked “hormonal” hoot.

17 March 2001 - Alice visits her nest site, rescuers, and Gibson in Antigo, WI. Seems to recognize nest tree and yard.

Summer 2001 - Houston Nature Center is constructed. Much controversy. Some adversaries talk of shooting Alice, and children are overheard in daycare playing “shoot the owl.” A local conservation officer is contacted, but says he can do nothing because Great Horned Owls are specifically not protected by state law in Minnesota. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Enforcement claims they can do nothing unless Alice is actually shot. Local law enforcement deals with the issue.

2002 - West Nile Virus sweeps across United States. Since it is fatal to Great Horned Owls, Alice now becomes an indoor bird with a perch in the nature center office.

22 February 2003 - The annual Festival of Owls, in honor of Alice’s hatch-day, begins in Houston, MN.

January 2004 - First TV interview on UPN-TV 23 in La Crosse, WI.

5 June 2004 - Alice’s first (and only!) kill--a camel cricket in Kinstler’s kitchen.

November 2004 - Alice News weblog begun. (http://owlstuff.com/aliceweblog.html)

Spring 2005 - Testifies before the Minnesota House & Senate Environment committees for removal of Great Horned Owls from Minnesota’s “unprotected birds” list. Passes unanimously and is signed by governor. Law takes effect August 1.

Favorite food: pocket gopher heads
Hobbies: bird watching, shredding egg cartons, and “killing” articles of clothing

Monday, July 04, 2005

Caching Gopher Heads

I know they say owls don't have a good sense of smell (it doesn't seem to bother them to be sprayed by skunks) or a good sense of taste (they don't have a lot of tastebuds.) But that doesn't stop Alice from being a discerning gourmand when it comes to her food.

People always ask two things about her diet: "Do you have to give her live animals?" and "Does she eat mice?" No to the first question--the only live thing she's ever eaten that I'm aware of is a cricket she killed in our kitchen a couple of years ago. Her food is served deader than a doornail (but warmed up) on a tray. To the second question, NO! Alice may have grown up on mice and rats, but she has a very decided preference for pocket gophers (Geomys bursarius).

But how do I know she prefers gophers to all other foods? Simple. If I give her nothing but mice to eat, she would rather skip eating for a night than eat the mice. If I get her to pick one up in her beak she nibbles it, then spits it out on the floor. One winter we didn't have enough pocket gophers stockpiled in our freezer to make it through the winter, so we supplemented with rabbits and squirrels. She did eat them, but when I got the first pocket gopher of the spring, I gave her the WHOLE thing, minus the stomach and intestines. I knew she couldn't eat that much, but the next morning when I looked in her room there was no sign of it. She often caches leftover goodies, but I didn't see it in any of the corners of the room, so I thought I'd look in her nest box. I took one step toward it and she came at me like she was going to kill me. I got the message and immediately left her alone. Later, when she wasn't in her room I checked her nest box. Yup...there were the gopher leftovers. She guarded her daily gopher leftovers with her life for a week or so until she realized she was going to get gopher every day again.

That's how I know she prefers gophers.

But they do have to be POCKET gophers...not the Minnesota State Mascot (striped gophers, streaked gophers, or 13-lined ground squirrels--whatever you want to call them.) I gave her one of these skinny, striped guys one night when she should have had an average appetite. She only ate the head. It wouldn't have even made a mouthful for her.

Pocket gophers come in all shapes and sizes, and among these guys, Alice prefers the front half of the really big grandpa-gophers. (I've read that male pocket gophers are the only mammals that never stop growing during their lifetime....they can get BIG--over a pound or more.) So if Alice's caching instinct is going to kick in, it usually involves a nice, big, fat, juicy gopher head.

Owls may not be the brightest bulb in the pack, but Alice seems to be learning that she normally gets gopher butt one night, then gopher head the next night. A few nights ago she was playing in our bedroom when I went in to go to bed. She usually hangs around for 5-10 minutes while I get ready for bed, then heads down the hall to her room for supper.

As I was writing in my Alice journal, I saw her come trucking out of her room, gopher head in beak, to eat it at the top of the stairs. Not such a big deal now that we have carpet protectors there too.

As I was drifting off to sleep I heard "thud-click, thud-click, thud-click." She was hopping around with her gopher head in one foot, probably looking for a place to save it for later.

At 12:30 AM my bladder alarm went off. I've learned the hard way after stepping in poop too many times that I need to put on my glasses and turn the lights on when I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. When I turned on the light, Alice was hunched over on her railing facing the bookshelf in the hall. She saw me and immediately pounced on her gopher head that she had cached next to the bookshelf on the floor. Mercifully, she let me past, bare feet and all, without a fight. (My husband normally gets attacked if he gets too close to a prized gopher cache...he made the mistake of once trying to take one away from her.)

My husband works 3rd shift, and he maintains his night owl sleep schedule even when he's not working. So at 4:30 AM he went into the office (the door is RIGHT next to the bookcase where Alice's gopher head was cached) to look at some books in there. He had the good sense to close the bifold door behind him, since he saw the gopher head right next to the door (and Alice had allowed him to pass through without attacking this time.) But apparently he was too close for comfort because Alice hopped down on her gopher head, picked it up, and walked off to cache it elsewhere (next to our bedroom door.)

Alice and I put in an 11+ hour day at work that next day. For whatever reason, she doesn't poop at work unless she gets scared. I guess owls have certain places they don't like to poop--thankfully my car is the other place she avoids pooping unless she's scared.

When we got home at 9 PM, I visited with Ken before getting her supper ready. Ken, in the meantime, had thrown out her cached gopher head. As we were talking, we heard slightly unusual ripping sounds coming from upstairs. Ken went up to check on her while I started preparing her fresh gopher, and he found her standing right next to the bedroom door--exactly where she had last cached the gopher--and she was ripping up the clear carpet protector there, trying to find her gopher head!

We've seen her look for cached food before, after it's been removed. But the funny thing is that she'll look for cached food even after she's watched us remove it. I guess owls are bright in their own way, but not that bright....

Monday, June 27, 2005

Look Mom, No Tail!

Alice is well into her molt, and our house and the nature center are well stocked with loose feathers.

A couple of days ago Alice dropped the last of her 12 tail feathers. She dropped the first one on May 18, so her longest tail feather is only about half grown in right now. This leaves Alice looking kind of silly.

I'm not sure how normal it is for a Great Horned Owl to have NO fully grown tail feathers for a time, but I remember seeing photos of a tail-less Bubo, (the owl featured in Bernd Heinrich's book "One Man's Owl.")

Alice has never lost all her tail feathers at once like this before. She normally has retained at least her two central tail feathers while the rest were regrowing, then lost the central feathers. But she's also been exposed to more unnatural light in other years since we used to bring her downstairs in the evenings on a regular basis.

Looking back on her tail molts in previous years, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of rhyme or reason to her molt (so far anyway.) Even the sequence of feathers drop is only somewhat similar from year to year. Maybe it'll have to be a lifetime study before I can draw any conclusions.... But maybe I won't be able to draw any conclusions since she'll always be exposed to some unnatural light.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


Coping is the official term for trimming the beak and talons on a bird of prey. Alice was a little overdue for a beak coping, as Alice was getting a little "long in the tooth" as far as owls go.

It's important not to let an owl's beak get overgrown. A long beak makes it more difficult for them to eat, but there is also a small risk that the beak could break off. If it breaks off too high up, then they can't tear up their food anymore.

So what is involved in coping Alice? Three people, a dremmel, and a bit of courage. It takes one person to hold her feet (that's me), one person to hold her head and run the dremmel to grind her beak down, and one person to hold her wings to her body.

Jeff Broberg, my falconry sponsor's husband, has coped hawk and falcon beaks for umpteen years for his wife's birds. Coping takes talent and skill, since you need to file the beak down to the proper proportions and shape. Jeff is a pro at this, and has done Alice's beak half a dozen times.

Jeff planned to stop in at the Houston Nature Center when he was in the area a few days ago. I just needed to round up a third person to hold Alice's wings. Normally my husband Ken does this, but he works nights and would be sleeping at the time Jeff was stopping in. We decided I could call and wake him up if I couldn't pin anyone else down to do the deed.

I called one person I thought would be up to the task, but he wasn't around. Then I just figured I'd wait and see who (if anyone) was around when Jeff came. It just so happened that a former co-worker of mine who is very good with animals stopped in for a chat right when Jeff showed up. And I suckered her into the task....

It was 4:30 PM. This is significant because this is usually when Alice and I head home from work for the day, and Alice always has a HUGE poop cooked up. I walked with her outside to see if I could get her to go before we started coping, but no luck. She knew something was up and didn't poop.

So we started the coping procedure in the nature center lobby (on a tile floor in case she pooped.) It took a couple of tries for everyone to get a proper hold on Alice, and after the first unsuccessful attempt, Alice let loose with her enormous "morning" poop. My former co-worker cleaned it up, so she was really getting a taste of what it's like to be in my husband's shoes.

Alice of course did a loud, screaming chitter as we grabbed her and got situated. I always feel really bad--probably something like a mom who's baby is getting a painful shot. But Alice must be getting used to the whole coping thing--she settled down and stopped screaming after a few seconds and let Jeff do his work. It seems like she's figured out it goes faster if she doesn't struggle....

It only takes Jeff a couple of minutes to do the actual grinding. Then we let her stand up on my glove and get her bearings. Thankfully she's very quick to forgive.

I let her hop to her normal work perch where she proceeded to rouse (shake her feathers to get them back in place), droop her wings, and pant. She was hot/stressed from the ordeal, so I let her just chill out (literally--in the air conditioning).

Now she has a nice-looking beak again. I figured it wouldn't be as sharp, but when she bit my forearm right between the bones the next morning when I was leashing her up I changed my mind on that issue. It hurt, and left a nice mark!

Friday, June 03, 2005

New Jesses

Every year or so, Alice's jesses (the leather strap doo-jobbies on her ankles) get a little stiff and need to be replaced. This is not a fun job.

When I flew American Kestrels as a falconer I made the jesses myself. They were always the new style which consists of an anklet piece secured by a grommet and a separate removable strap that goes through the grommet. The idea is if the bird ever gets away, it could pull the straps out and wouldn't likely get hung up on a tree branch.

Since Alice doesn't fly free, I can use the traditional jesses on her. These are a single leather strap with a few slits in them. After flipping, twisting, inserting here and pulling there, they can be put on and are pretty much unremovable by the bird (but are removable by the human.)

I've always ordered the traditional jesses pre-made for Alice, but this year I decided to make them myself. I used thick kangaroo hide softened with Neat's-foot oil. And now you're saying "Kangaroo hide?!?" This is a fairly standard leather for falconry purposes because it is strong yet soft. It's only obtained from legally harvested kangaroos in Australia. And it's not cheap.

So once I had the new jesses cut, oiled and properly twisted, it was time to put them on Alice. She doesn't like this, which makes it into an ordeal.

In the past we've enlisted the "use" of a neighbor's dog while Alice and I are in my parked vehicle nearby. Alice is quite afraid of strange dogs, so she usually ignores whatever I'm doing to her to watch the dog. But changing out her jesses bugs her enough that she ignores the dog for brief seconds here and there to bite my hands--HARD. Yes, this often results in some superficial wounds.

This year we tried something different. We brought Alice out into our screen porch one evening, and she perched on my knee. (I was wearing jeans.) She's always a little leery until she gets a feel for where our dog is and what he's doing. As she craned her neck to find the dog, I calmly changed out her jesses....and didn't get bit once! (This was especially good since her beak was extra sharp and long and in need of trimming. More on that in the next Alice News.)

Hopefully the screen porch tactic will work in the future. Our dog will be 15 (in human years!) this year, though, so he may not be able to hold up his unknown-to-him part of the bargain.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Great Horned Owl Protection Bill Signed By Governor

Well, it's official! Apparently everyone figured it was high time the Great Horned Owl got off the "unprotected birds" list in Minnesota so that state law agreed with federal law (under which they are considered protected.)

The House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass the bill, the Senate voted unanimously to do the same, and the Governor signed the bill on Friday, May 17. The new law goes into effect on August 1, 2005.

What does this mean for Alice? It means I now need to get a state permit to have her like I'd need for any other raptor. The woman in charge of permits can expect me on her doorstep at 8:00 AM on August 1st.

How did Alice celebrate? She brought her leftover gopher head into our bedroom last night and ate it on our bed.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Great Horned Owl Protection Bill Passes Senate

The bill to remove Great Horned Owls from Minnesota's "unprotected birds" list passed the Senate on Friday, May 20 with a vote of 62-0! Add this unanimous vote to the House's unanimous vote, and I think we can be pretty well assured the governor will sign the bill, which is the final step in the process.

I didn't think anything happened unanimously anymore....!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Talon Care

Most people probably don't give talons a whole lot of thought--other than they're really sharp things to be avoided. But there are maintenance issues that need to be addressed when an owl is in captivity.

Talons grow continuously, just like our toenails. But they grow to a nice sharp point. They are self-sharpening, so if they are blunted for any reason, as they grow they will self-sharpen.

In the wild, owl talons are subjected to a lot. They're used for killing animals almost every day, they rub on all kinds of surfaces from bark to rock, and they're exposed to sun, rain, heat, cold, and all the environmental extremes. This keeps them in good shape.

In captivity, (especially in our house!!) Alice's talons don't get the wear they would in the wild, so they get overgrown unless we do some regular maintenance on them.

Every month or two I use a dog toenail trimmer to trim off the tips of Alice's talons. This keeps them the proper length. If they get too long, her toes twist and turn when she tries to stand flat-footed. Trimming blunts the tips of the talons (bonus for us, and it doesn't hurt Alice since she's not a hunter.) It doesn't take long for those talons to get sharp again, though.

Last night I trimmed Alice's talons. She doesn't like this, so while I'm trying to snip off the proper amount, she's figuring out which perch she can hop/fly to next to get away from me. Plus she pretty much continuously hoots because she hates the whole affair.

Alice's hind two talons on each foot really need some work. Her front talons are used to hold her food as she eats it every night and usually wind up in her water bowl when she gets her daily drink of water. This repeated wetting/drying keeps them in better shape. Her hind talons aren't often exposed to water, since she thinks bathing once every few weeks is great plenty.

Alice also really doesn't like it when I try to get around her to trim her hind talons. As a result, they've gotten a little overgrown and thick. Last night I was finally able to trim them down to a better length, but they're still thick.

Talons flake and peel as they grow. (Older birds often have flaky talons.) One or two of Alice's hind talons are flaking pretty good, which is a good sign--they're naturally thinning themselves down. I try to scratch away at the white, flaky stuff, but my fingernails aren't much of a match for her talons. We're going to have to take a dremmel to them when we cope (trim) her beak soon (also done with a dremmel.)

Not fun stuff, but it's a necessary part of living with an owl....

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Sick & Injured Owls

Although I'm not a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, I'm kind of the clearing house for injured raptors in southeast Minnesota. Since people know I have an owl, I'm the one they call when they find one in need of help. I pick them up and get them to the closest rehabilitator as soon as possible.

Friday I got a call about an owl standing in the middle of the road just outside of Houston. It was only about 1/2 mile from the Houston Nature Center, so I grabbed a box and headed out right away to check on it.

It was easy to find--there were two cars pulled over on the side of the road and a few people standing beside them. By now the owl was in the grassy ditch...a much safer location.

I wasn't surprised to find a fuzzy owl with fully grown wing feathers--a fledgling. It was a small Great Horned Owl, even for its stage of development. It's not usual to find fledglings on the ground since they leave the nest before they can fly, and they often spend time on the ground, in low branches, or wherever until they get the hang of things--which can take a week or two. Mom and Dad watch them and take care of them at this stage, but many people assume these owls are orphans and pick them up and bring them home. Then I have to tell them to go put the owlet back!!

This owlet was not OK, however. The people watching him said he had been dragging one leg. He was also very thin, judging from the fact that I could easily feel both sides of his keel bone on his breast. (On a healthy owl, you can usually only feel just the leading edge of the bone, not the sides.) So I put him in a box so I could transport him to the rehabilitator.

I've learned not to let Alice see fledgling Great Horned Owls...she thinks she should kill them for whatever reason. Not good.

I took the owlet in to the rehabilitator right away, and got to stay for the exam. Because he was emaciated, he was also very dehydrated. Owls get most of their fluids from their food, so if they aren't eating, they often get dehydrated. He got some intravenous fluids, plus more fluids under the skin. His left foot was just flopping, so he got a ball bandage on that leg, plus some anti-inflammatory and pain medication.

Then Monday I got a call from a neighboring town about an adult Great Horned Owl that couldn't fly. I picked him up (it was a small bird, so I assume it was a male) and took him in right away too. He had to have been sick to get so bad--he was the most emaciated the rehabilitator has ever seen. Instead of being dark/bright pink, his mouth was white, indicating he was most likely very anemic too.

This owl didn't put up much resistance during the exam at all. I kind of expected him to die right on the exam table. But he got his intravenous fluids, then was put back in "the Great Horned Owl" room with the owlet I had brought in Friday and another fledgling Great Horned Owl with a broken leg--this one VERY feisty!!!

I checked in today to see if the adult was still alive. Amazingly, he's still hanging in there! It's hard to believe what Great Horned Owls can live through sometimes. Hopefully he'll pull through. The little ones should be fine, and if all goes well, will be released together.

Just remember....this is the time of year for owls to fledge (leave the nest and learn to fly.) If you see an owl on the ground that has a fuzzy/downy body and head, but fully developed wing and tail feathers, leave it alone unless you're sure it's sick or injured, or both parents are dead. If it's in a dangerous situation, use a towel or jacket to pick it up and move it to a safer situation. It's parents won't reject it just because you've touched it. If you're unsure about the owlet, check back every now and then, or hide yourself completely and make no noise to see if it climbs a tree or the parents are caring for it.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Great Horned Owl Bill Passes Minnesota House

The Minnesota House of Representatives voted on HF419, a bill to remove Great Horned Owls from Minnesota's "unprotected birds" list, on Monday, May 9. It passed unanimously, 134-0!!

The following is what "Session Daily", reporting news from the House of Representatives, had to say:

Game and Fish
Give a hoot, change the statute Published (5/9/2005)
Alice the great horned owl may have fewer sleepless days, under a bill that unanimously passed the House.
HF419, sponsored by Rep. Ray Cox (R-Northfield), would remove the great horned owl from the state’s unprotected bird list. It aims to clarify the protected status of great horned owls in Minnesota.
The measure now moves to the Senate, where Sen. Thomas M. Neuville (R-Northfield) is the sponsor.
Currently, great horned owls appear on Minnesota’s unprotected birds list, along with such avian cousins as sparrows, blackbirds and pigeons.
Great horned owls are, however, protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Alice’s handler, Houston Nature Center Naturalist Karla Kinstler, testified in committee that the classification is causing confusion among conservation officers.
Audio & Video:Watch the floor session
Here's hoping all goes well in the Senate too!

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

An Easter Egg, A Rat, and More Testimony

Things haven't been terribly exciting around here lately. The neighbor owls are still hooting...and even doing some crazy, wild hooting right in the yard. I was lucky enough to wake up and get it on tape. The screech-owls still call sometimes, and last night a single Barred Owl hooted half the night way off in the distance.

For Easter, my Mom gave all the grandkids plastic Easter eggs with treats inside. Since Alice is the closest thing we've produced to a grandchild for them, Alice got an egg too. It was beige (owl eggs are white...so not too far off) and pretty close to the right size for a Great Horned Owl egg. It was shiny and plastic, so the texture wasn't quite right, but curiosity got the better of me. I put it in her nest box.

Alice was in her nest box when I put the egg in with her. She looked at it for a few seconds, and that was it. The next day she was in her nest basket, so I put it in there. She's ignored it. In fact this morning when she was in her nest basket clucking and scratching around she actually threw the egg out! (I don't think it was intentional...it just happened to come out with the wood shavings that get thrown about when she scratches around.) So much for the egg thing. Maybe if I would have introduced it in January.....

Alice has been consistently coming downstairs now for about four nights straight. This is pretty unusual...she rarely comes downstairs on her own. But I finally figured out why. There's been a rodent in the house. We live in a 1930s farmhouse, so that's not a big surprise. But the mouse traps weren't being touched at all. I was a little baffled.

Until yesterday. I glimpsed the critter at the bottom of the basement stairs, and it was WAY too big to be a mouse. I must be a rat!! It's been snipping off the carpet just under the living room closet door among other things, but is totally uninterested in baited rat traps. I tried plain peanut butter, then added some dog food to the peanut butter. Nothing.

So last night Alice came downstairs at 8 PM. She hung out in the kitchen, pounced on a shoe, and then finally went into the living room when I went to bed. Out of curiosity I checked on her a little later. She was sitting on an end table I had pulled in front of the couch to use for my owl pellet dissections I'm working on. This is not normal living room behavior for her. She normally sits looking out a window, on the back of the rocking chair, or on top of a bookcase. She doesn't perch somewhere in the middle of the living room.

Except when there's a rat in the closet. The end table is the perfect front row seat to see the rat in action if it pokes it's head out of the closet. And what do you know...her poop the last several nights indicates that's exactly where she spent her time downstairs.

Now we'll have to see who prevails...the rat, the rat traps, or Alice. Since Alice's kill list only includes a single camel cricket, I'm not betting on Alice.... We may have to bring in a cat to do the job properly.

We just returned from our second visit to the state capitol today. Alice and I had previously testified before the House of Representatives Natural Resources Policy Committee regarding their bill to remove Great Horned Owls from Minnesota's "unprotected birds" list. We must have done OK since we were called back to testify before the Senate committee. All went well. Now we just sit back and wait for the voting.....

Friday, March 18, 2005

Alice Testifies!

Yesterday, March 17, Alice and I drove up to St. Paul. It was Alice's first time up there, and we were there to testify before the House of Representatives Natural Resources Policy Committee regarding HF0419, a bill to remove Great Horned Owls from the "unprotected birds" list in Minnesota.

Needless to say, I was nervous. It's not like this is Roe vs. Wade or anything, but hey, I've never testified in front of a legislative committee before!!!

When we went into the hearing room, quite a few folks were already abuzz, asking each other "Where's the owl?", "Where's it from?" etc. It seems Alice was going to be the highlight of their day. Then the cameramen came in, then more guys with regular cameras. Apparently this was a thing for the press!

The testifying part actually wasn't anything super exciting. I just told Alice's story, which covers most of the basic Great Horned Owl biology stuff and also covers the issue of confusion regarding the conflicting state and federal laws about Great Horned Owls.

There were a few questions, but nothing of major importance. Someone from enforcement was there, and he confirmed my assessment of the regulations as questions were asked. One of the Representatives on the Natural Resources Policy Committe, Jeanne Poppe, is originally from Houston and a dedicated Alice fan...a nice surprise! She was happily telling everyone about Alice, her personality, and that Alice was from her hometown.

Representative Cox had really done his homework on this issue...already contacting the timber and ag industries to make sure they had no opposition. An amendment was added to the bill just to clarify that no state depredation permits are necessary when a federal depredation permit it issued (some states do require one, some states don't), but I need some clarification as to if this removes the need for ANY state permit regarding Great Horned Owls....such as the special purpose possession permit for a live owl for educational purposes. Such permits are required for all other raptors used in educational programs, so it would be weird to exempt Great Horned Owls from this.

I've heard that we made the KARE 11 evening news in the Twin Cities. I'm not sure if we made any other press or not, but we'll sit back and wait for the voting to happen now. I'm not sure when that will be, but it will have to be voted on in the Senate, also. I'll keep you posted!

Friday, March 11, 2005

An "Intruder"

As part of the Festival of Owls this last weekend, Marge Gibson (Alice's rehabilitator) came and brought 6 live owls (Eastern Screech-, Long-eared, Barred, 2 Barns, Barred & Great Horned Owls.) Marge's live owl programs are always a big hit with the crowd, but maybe not with Alice....

Bumpy, the Great Horned Owl Marge brought along for the programs, is a male. Since males are smaller than females, and Alice is a BIG female, we held them side by side during the programs to show the size (and color) difference. Alice didn't like being so close to another owl....she actually hissed and clacked her bill at Bumpy during the program!! It takes a lot to make Alice clack her bill.

Marge and the birds spent the night at our house, along with Great Gray Owl biologist and keynote speaker Jim Duncan. We stayed up talking, and Bumpy hung out with us downstairs. Bumpy is normally a very hooty bird during mating season, but his bout of West Nile Virus has changed his personality. He's been slowly recovering, and has only recently returned to his old hooty self. So hoot he did.

Alice didn't appreciate it. While she didn't say much while I was downstairs with everyone, the next morning she got clucky and hooty as soon as she heard me walking to her room. I think she would have kept vocalizing if I hadn't left her room to go shower. Bumpy didn't say anything until Marge got up, then he got all hooty too.

Sunday night, after Alice was home again and everyone had left, Alice turned into the hootiest owl she's ever been. She hooted almost non-stop from 8 PM to 3 AM! And she's stayed hooty and clucky too. Everytime she sees my husband or me she starts getting clucky and heads for her nest box or nest basket. Or sometimes she'll start hooting just because she hears us talking. She's never been this bad before.

She is calming down with the hooting some, but she's still got the renewed interest in her nest box and basket. Apparently intruding owls can make for a very jealous Alice....

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Meet the Neighbors

I've finally "met" all the neighbor owls and have them sorted out now. We've given them names just to make them easier to refer to.

First we have the original pair from our place. "Wendell" is the male of that pair. He's been around as long as I've been able to identify individual calls, which is maybe since 2000 or so. His hoot is what I consider a typical Great Horned Owl hoot: "Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo."

"Wheezy" is Wendell's mate. She was the first bird we named because she had such a wheezy voice. I actually thought she was terribly sick, but she's been hooting like that for a long time, and finally seems to have lost the wheeze. Her hoot is a distinctive "Hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo," and is often quite emphatic. She's been around for a couple of years now.

Then there's the new pair that bumped Wendell and Wheezy off to the east of us (but they're still close enough we can still hear them from our house.) We named the male "Victor" for obvious reasons. His hoot is an interesting "Hoo, H-h-h-h-hoo, hoo, hoo." I know his hoot well...he and Wendell spent a week or more hooting it out in our yard while the females kept their distance.

Then there's the matter of Victor's woman. I just plain hadn't heard her since last fall. She had to exist, though, since it would be highly unlikely for an unmated male to boot an established pair off their territory. I FINALLY heard her hoot in the last few nights. She spared a few minutes to come up and hoot in the pines next to the bedroom window with her man. Her hoot is basically the same rhythm as Alice's hoot: "Hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo." We can this new female Virginia.

Now that we've met the neighbors and I've got them all sorted out, the next order of business is to find a nest. I'm pretty sure I know the area where Victor and Virginia are nesting, but I've looked twice with no luck. I'm not giving up though.

So where does Alice fit into all of this? Since I'm pretty sure Victor's nest is within 100-200 yards of our house, Alice usually hoots it out with him almost every night. She doesn't even care if I hoot with her...she does her hoot-a-thons just fine all by herself.

By the way, Alice scratched her eye again, this time a little worse. It was still bothering her today, 3 days after I noticed her left eye was bothering her slightly. I took her in to her vet today, but apparently things are healing up just fine on their own. I hope she feels better for her hatch-day party at the Festival of Owls March 4-6!

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Great Horned Owls On Their Way to Protection in Minnesota

As strange as it sounds, Great Horned Owls are on the "unprotected birds" list in Minnesota, right along with House Sparrows, European Starlings, and pigeons. But they are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So they are protected, but it does create confusion.

The first I knew of this issue was when I applied for permits to get Alice in 1998. The federal permit office informed me no state permit would be needed. This seemed weird, since you always need an accompanying state permit to keep raptors, or for salvaging dead birds, etc. So I called the state permit office. They confirmed that Great Horned Owls are the only raptor in Minnesota specifically exempted from the law.

At the time I though it was not right, but hey, one less permit for me to deal with. I didn't really give the issue another thought until a few years later.

In 2001 the Houston Nature Center was being constructed. This brought out the vocal minority opposed to the nature center, who until that point had nothing really to say on the matter. There were public meetings and things got kind of ugly. But by then Alice was already the symbol of the nature center. The opposition took it out on her to some degree.

People started talking about "shooting that owl." This certainly upset me, but I figured it was just a way for some people to blow off some steam on the subject. It went too far, though, when some kids were overheard at their daycare pretending to shoot "that owl" and make "owl soup." It's one thing for adults to talk big, but when it affects kids who don't know any better, that's crossing the line.

So I called my local state conservation officer and explained the situation. He told me that he had no jurisdiction on the matter since Great Horned Owls are specifically exempted from state law. That's when it hit me. Something needed to be done.

In the meantime, our local police officer had a chat with the adults that had been talking about shooting the owl and making owl soup in front of the kids later overheard at their daycare. I think it made them think twice about what they were saying and who they were saying it in front of.

I didn't really know how to go about getting a law like that changed, and had no idea how hard it would be. I basically worked on collecting information: the actual state and federal statutes themselves, and doing research about the level of protection for Great Horned Owls in other states.

Then one day while visiting my former advisor at Luther College, my advisor pointed out one of his current students who's father was in the Minnesota Legislature. Apparently he had recently received an award for his environmental work. Finally a connection--his daughter had the same college advisor as I had!

So I looked up Representative Ray Cox and sent him the information I had gathered. I didn't hear anything, but I didn't really have my hopes up.

Then several months later, when I was talking to someone at the federal permit office about another permit, the woman mentioned that I may in the future need a state permit for Alice. I asked why, and she replied that a state representative had been inquiring about the matter with state and federal officials to get their take on the issue. It was Ray Cox!

Last session wasn't the appropriate time for him to introduce such a bill, but I'm proud to say that on January 24, 2005 he introduced HR0419, a bill that would remove Great Horned Owls from the unprotected birds list. It's counterpart was introduced into the Senate (SF0628) on January 31.

Representative Cox said the bill should come to a vote in the next months, and he doesn't anticipate any problems with it's passage. Although it's too soon to celebrate, I'm one happy camper, and I'll be the first in line to get my state permit for a Great Horned Owl.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Saga of the Neighbor Owls

We're lucky enough to have a wild pair of owls that consider our yard part of their territory. I try to keep track of the "neighbors" as much as I can, and over the years I realized I can identify some of them as individuals.

I started keeping notes the tail end of 2000. From the begging calls heard in the fall, I'm pretty sure the "neighbors" fledged at least one youngster in 2001, 2002, and 2004. It wasn't until a new female came on territory in 2003 that I noticed I could identify an individual owl. The previous owls' hoots must not have been too distinctive, or I just didn't pay attention, but when this new female showed up hooting in our yard, I knew she was new. He voice was raspy or wheezy, and I was actually worried she might be sick. Well, she's still hooting, so I guess she's not sick! We call her "Wheezy" just to keep things simple. Since her mate needed a name to make him easier to refer to, we settled on "Wendell" for him.

Looking back through my notes, it seems Wheezy came into the picture in August of a year when no young were heard begging--2003. Perhaps the previous female was killed, or something happened to her while she was on the nest??? We'll never know. But since Wheezy's voice is so distinctive, she's been easy to keep track of.

The saga continues. On October 9, 2004 we noted that Wendell and Wheezy were hooting from our yard, but a different pair of owls was hooting to the west. We had never heard more than one pair of owls before. Wendell & Wheezy must have fledged at least one youngster, because a young one continued to beg to the end of October in our yard. But we didn't hear anything more from the new owls.

Until January, that is. We started hearing a new owl hoot way to the west. I think it's a new female...it has many syllables, and much vibrato to its hoots: "Hoo, h-h-h-hoo, hoo, hoo." The male (?) that hoots with her likes to sit on the silos at the farm next door. His hoot has the same syllables as Wendell's, but I'm not sure if it's him or not.

At first I thought Wendell had taken a new mate. But now we hear Wheezy hooting, way to the north of our house, all alone. We've heard her hoot several times (there's no mistaking her hoot), and there is never a male hooting with her...just the new neighbors hooting in her old territory.

So what's going on??? My best guess at this point is that Wendell died late this fall or early winter, Wheezy didn't take a new mate, and a new pair was able to bump her off the main part of her territory and move her off to the north where she's trying to hold her own inferior territory. Did the new male kill Wendell in a territorial dispute???

The new neighbors have spent much of their time the last couple of weeks at the neighboring farm and just to the west. Early this morning they hooted in our yard for the first time. The new female (?) - the one with more syllables to the hoot - hooted a lot as she moved around the yard. The male (?) hooted to the east of the house. By 6:45 AM, the female had switched over to doing squawks, or begging calls, just like Alice's! After a few minutes she flew just into the woods a short ways, and apparently was joined by her mate. He started in on all kinds of weird, excited hoots while she continued to squawk. Believe it or not, I got it all on tape!

So I guess I have a better idea of how I'm supposed to vocalize when Alice does her squawking begging calls...I actually tried it on her this morning. She seemed to get into it a bit...but I don't know visually what I'm supposed to be doing...which was obvious to Alice, I think. Maybe the squawks indicate that the female is receptive??? Maybe all the weird hoots and squawks lead to copulation? I couldn't see a thing, but I don't doubt that Alice knows what goes on out there....

So what was Alice doing this morning while the new neighbors were in our yard? Mostly just watching everything intently, with her ear tufts up. She hooted just a couple of times when I was in her view. Otherwise she spent her time hopping/running from perch to perch to keep the wild owls in view. I'm not quite sure why she doesn't get more upset with the wild owls so close...she's had a number of "hoot-outs" with the neighbor owls over the past years.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

No Eggs Yet

I was thinking this might be the year for Alice to lay eggs. Human-imprinted birds sometimes do this, but of course the eggs are sterile. Then they usually want to incubate them, but the eggs never hatch. (I would need a separate breeding permit to fertilize Alice.)

Alice is almost 8 now. Around Christmas she got EXTREMELY hooty, wanting to hoot with me may times every day. She also started sleeping in or near her nest box. To top it off, she also stopped eating every day. The eating thing would have worried me, but I read in A Place For Owls, by Katherine McKeever (the Owl Lady of Canada) that her Spectacled Owl, Granny, stopped eating regularly, wanted constant attention, and wouldn't leave her nest box before she laid her first egg. So I thought maybe we'd get eggs this year....

Well, I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen now. Although she's still quite hooty some days, other days she isn't. She doesn't always sleep by her nest box anymore--sometimes she sleeps on top of the bi-fold door to her room (with her ear tufts smooshed up against the ceiling because she doesn't fit there very well.) Her eating has settled into a mostly every-other-day routine, but I notice it's always the front end that she eats. (The front end tastes better.)

In previous years, she's continued with some hooting and clucking in her nest box on a limited basis way into spring and maybe even early summer, so her current "nestiness" may not necessarily mean anything's going to happen.

The wild owls most likely don't have eggs yet, but Alice is indoors and exposed to more light than if she lived outdoors, so she tends to run ahead of schedule. Normally she drops her first flight feather in late December or early January, but I've yet to find a feather this year. So although I think we got closer to eggs this year than ever before, I'm not expecting to find any (but I do still check--you never know, and I'm not an expert on these matters!)

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Hiding Food For Later

In the wild, Great Horned Owls are known to "cache" (hide for later use) excess food. This must be an instinctive behavior, because Alice does it too, and I sure didn't teach her!

Alice is given roughly half a pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius) each evening around 9 PM. Often she will eat some of it before midnight, but she sometimes has a "snack" in the morning too. If there's a big enough piece left in the morning, she may hide it in a corner somewhere. Usually this is next to a bookcase, in a corner of her room, under something, etc. Mind you, it's normally the front half of the gopher that gets cached...apparently owls almost universally prefer the front half of the animals they eat. Leftover back ends are usually left wherever she was eating...like in the middle of the hall floor.

Does Alice remember where she puts her food? YES! If my poor husband happens to walk between Alice and a good chunk of gopher head in the middle of the night, she will actually fly at him and grab him hard enough to get her point across.

I usually keep tabs on any uneaten food and remove it before her next feeding. There have been a few times when I knew there had to be leftovers somewhere, but I just couldn't find them. Then after a few days the stench gives it away. Thankfully that's only happened a few times!

Alice doesn't like it when I remove food from her caches. Last night she had a gopher head remnant put away along a bookshelf in the hallway by her room. I picked it up so that she could see I was removing it (otherwise she'll look for it for 15 minutes at least...trying to figure out where her food went). Then I brought up her tray with a nicely warmed gopher back end and put it in her room in the usual place.

So what did she do? She hopped down off the hallway railing and marched over to where her gopher head had been. Then she started pulling up the clear carpet protector on the floor there, as if trying to figure out if it had somehow disappeared beneath. This only lasted a couple of minutes, then she went in to her room to get a drink of water from her water bowl. She didn't actually eat until this morning.

It's funny to watch her if her food has been removed and she doesn't know it. She'll spend forever in a corner, looking at it from every conceivable angle, poking around and biting at anything there, moving things around, trying to figure out where her leftovers went.

She doesn't always cache her leftovers, but I do need to keep track of it when she does to avoid nasty odors....

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Quiet Begging Calls

Well, Alice's eye wasn't bugging her at all by the end of the next night...so that's good.

She's started making soft little begging calls lately, almost every day. Apparently human-imprinted owls are more vocal than owl-imprinted owls, and they tend to retain their begging calls more, at least from what I've heard. Alice still does begging calls (kind of a loud "waaaaa!" sound) on occasion, but not often. But lately she's been doing lots of quiet begging-type calls. They sound the same, but are much quieter...kind of one step up from a whisper. I thought maybe this was a more "intimate" sound, since she's been very nesty and hooty lately. Last night proved that theory wrong!

We conduct an annual New Year's Eve Owl Prowl for the Houston Nature Center. This year we called in Eastern Screech- and Barred Owls for the 22 participants. We ended up at our house, where Alice is a guaranteed Great Horned Owl for everyone to see...and there's hot chocolate to drink to warm up! I brought Alice downstairs to the kitchen where everyone was standing, but her preference (no big surprise) was to head back upstairs to her "territory." Several folks went partway up the stairs to watch her sitting on the Astroturf-covered railing and see the egg cartons she likes to shred. And Alice started making the soft begging calls with a bunch of strangers standing right there in "her" stairway! So much for them being a private kind of a call.

Time to develop a new theory.