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. (

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....