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