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 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.