Sunday, December 03, 2006

Owl In Heat

WARNING: This is not going to be a "G" rated post. This is real-life stuff that I have to deal with in order to try to satisfy Alice's urges and needs.

Ever since we got back from visiting Marge Gibson, Alice's rehabilitator, Alice has been exceedingly "receptive" to put it nicely. (She's been a Great "Horny" Owl to put it crudely.) So what exactly does this mean?

It means I don't have to do the long hooting sessions anymore! I can get away with a few minutes here and there.

It means that Alice follows me all over the house and hoots at my shins a lot.

It means that I have an owl nest on my dresser along with other potential nests in most rooms in our house.

It means that Alice now hoots in public on command (all I have to do is lean forward and hoot to her.) Pretty cool, huh?

This March, after the Festival of Owls which includes a visit from Marge, Alice got "receptive" for the first time. And I noticed that when she was in this mood she would repeatedly leave the last syllable off her hoot. Anytime she hooted repeatedly without that last syllable, she was ready to be mounted.

Now I'm not a male Great Horned Owl, so I can just fly over and land on her back like the wild ones do. I just put my hand on her back. If she's "receptive" she holds her head down, lowers her tail from the near-vertical hooting posture to almost horizontal, and her tail starts quivering. If I can contort myself to get a view up underneath her tail feathers, I can see the feathers have parted and her cloaca (the one and only out door on a bird) is swollen and making repeated kissing motions...hence the term "cloacal kiss."

This spring when Alice was in heat, once or twice a day seemed to satisfy her needs. Now she's more like a rabbit--she's interested several times a day. I think the past few days between my husband and I, we've had our hands on her back at least 4-6 times a day! (I'm sure my husband wishes he could just put his hand on my back and turn me on like that...)

But copulation is not a prolonged affair in Great Horned Owls. In the wild I don't think it lasts more than a few seconds, but Alice will tolerate up to maybe 20-30 seconds before she starts with the annoyed chitters or biting. Then, as horrible as it sounds (at least to women), we leave her. In the wild the male flies off after he's done the deed. Alice seems fine with it, even though it bothers me a bit.

Gopher seems to have become an aphrodisiac now. More than once Alice has stood on a leftover gopher head or butt and started in with the hoots minus a syllable, or with her clucky/nesty sounds. And yes, she's asking for the hand on the back thing, and shuts up after one of us has done the deed.

So why not just get a male Great Horned Owl and breed Alice?

1. Alice KNOWS she's a human, so if a Great Horned Owl gets close to her, she hisses and clacks her bill in a most threatening manner.

2. This would require a breeding permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. I don't think they're overly inclined to hand these out.

3. Where the heck do you get Great Horned Owl sperm? I know I could easily do the artificial insemination if I had the sperm, but I don't have any ideas where I could get any.

4. What about the kids? Would they grow up thinking they're humans or owls? Or would they be misprints...not associating with any species? Would the goal be to release them to the wild? Or would the goal be to keep them at least for several years to see how they compare vocally to Alice and their other parent? If they are to be kept, who would keep them?

As you can see, there are no easy answers here. Someday I might try to navigate this maze because so much could be learned about vocal development, regional variation in hooting, the genetics of subspecies coloration, etc.

So for now we have a very hormonal bird on our hands. I'm not sure how long it will last, but I'm hoping to get an egg or two out of the deal. They wouldn't be fertile, but at least I could observe up close how Alice cares for the eggs and get all her nesting vocalizations recorded. But, of course, we'd need Alice to be running ahead of schedule so that she's over and done with the egg thing before the Festival of Owls the first week in March. We wouldn't want her to miss her 10th hatch-day party! And yes, she is running ahead of schedule.

By the way, Alice says "Hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo." Literally. She just said it.

If you're up for the X-rated video of a cloacal kiss, Laura Erickson (also known as the Dr. Ruth of birds) has posted it on her blog at (It takes a while to load.)

Alice Attacks!

We've all heard that wild animals don't make good pets. And I've tried to go into all the reasons that owls don't make good pets, although I don't consider Alice a "pet" since she legally has to work for a living and I don't own her. At any rate, Alice took this one step further on November 20th.

We took a "family" trip to Antigo, WI to visit Marge Gibson, founder of the Raptor Education Group, and Alice's rehabilitator. The goal of the trip was to record some of Marge's captive Great Horned Owls for my vocal study, but just as important if not more so was to just spend some time visiting with Marge. Where else can I go overnight and bring along a husband and an owl?

After we got settled I got Alice set up tethered to a living room perch. She spent a long time bobbing her head til I thought it would come off, checking out everything. The Gibson's house should be very familiar to Alice, since she grew up with them and did spend much time in the living room. Alice seems to have a great memory of locations and individuals.

Marge's husband, Don, was in the living room, and Alice was pretty much ignoring him. Eventually she had enough of just looking--she wanted to explore on foot. So I stood in front of her to keep her from trying to jump to the floor.

At this point Marge walked into the living room. Alice immediately flew to the lamp just in front of Marge and started hooting. (Thank goodness the lamp had a very heavy base so it didn't tip over!) I thought Alice was still in the "get down and explore" mode, so I picked her up and put her back on her perch.

Then Marge walked around behind me, and the hoots kept coming, and Alice bated (tried to fly) yet again toward Marge. She was tethered too short to get to her.

At this point Marge put on a glove to pick Alice up to soothe her, but Alice nailed Marge's glove with her foot. It was at this point that we realized something was up. I grabbed Alice's leash and held it tight.

Wherever Marge walked, Alice turned to face her and kept hooting a blue streak at her. Alice's ear tufts were STRAIGHT up and her head feathers were compressed. Not a friendly sign.

She tried once more to fly at Marge, but I held her leash short and tight. There was no denying it--Alice was trying to attack Marge.

Given her behavior as a very disrespectful guest (especially considering that Marge is the person who saved her life!), Alice was banished to a downstairs pen that had been cleared out for her. Her hooting went on anytime she heard or saw anyone.

I went down for periodic visits as much to soothe Alice as to soothe myself. She had NEVER tried to attack anyone before in her 9.5 years! Each time I approached her pen, she started hooting like crazy. When I went in and sat down, she literally crawled into my lap and tried to tuck her head under my arms, all the while hooting.

Soon I realized that during some of these intense hooting sessions Alice was dropping the last syllable off her hoot. I've come to assume this means she's "receptive"...or ready to be mounted. Sure enough, I could put my hand on her back (or cuddle her, hug her, or do all the other things I'd love to do to her that she doesn't allow...except when she's "in heat.") So I took full advantage of it.

The next day Marge sat me down for a serious talk. She explained that she was not in the least bit offended that Alice tried to attack her. Every bird is an individual, and they all have their own likes and dislikes, even though we may not understand them.

But the key issue was that human imprinted Great Horned Owls like Alice have a reputation for getting really nasty as they get older. Alice had already footed me for the first time this summer (when I inadvertently got my hand too close to a cached gopher head), and this just reaffirmed her aggressive streak. From here on out, Marge explained, Alice will be a changed bird. There's no going back to what she was...kind of like a belligerent teenager who's hormones have kicked in.

So to keep things under control, it's absolutely necessary that I maintain the upper hand with Alice and be strict (which I've started to do already.) And absolutely imperative is that I never let anyone get close enough to Alice for her to have the chance to attack. Because if she does ever attack someone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would likely be there in a heartbeat to "deal with her"...which could potentially be the worst that could be imagined.

This was very hard but very important stuff for me to hear. From here on out I will be much more careful about how close I allow others to get to Alice. Although I know that Alice sees Marge very differently from other people (since Marge is the human that Alice had her first "relationship" with), I don't know what's going on inside Alice's head or what else might trigger an unexpected attack.

When we were leaving Marge and Don's house, Alice completely ignored Marge! We didn't expect that, but then Marge suggested that part of what upset Alice so much may have been that she was concerned I was going to leave her with Marge, and now that she saw we were going home she was OK again. Who knows, but it sounds plausible to me.

And just as Marge predicted, Alice is a changed bird. She hooted intermittently the whole 5 hour drive home, even though she has NEVER hooted in the car before. And she's now exceedingly "receptive", "in heat", or whatever you want to call it. (More on that in the next e-mail.)

Moral of the story: even human imprinted owls are still wild animals, no matter how cute, interesting, and wonderful!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Picking Out a Nest

In Alice's world, it's time to start picking out a nest. She may run ahead of the wild owl schedule since she's indoors and exposed to more light, but I just talked to her rehabilitator, Marge Gibson, and her male Great Horned Owl has been hooting like a madman for a month already, which is a month early for him too, and he's housed outdoors. Hmmmm...maybe there's something the owls know that we don't.

At any rate, Alice's laundry basket nest in her room got a fresh lining of basswood shavings this fall. She seems to like it, and often sleeps on the edge of her basket during the day. But she also seems bent on checking other possible locations, just in case.

One spot she's come back to a few times is under the guest bed in our combination guest bedroom/office. We keep our packing materials under there, but she just seems to have fun sliding along in her belly, ripping at the newspaper and bubble wrap.

Another spot she always likes to check out is on the side kitchen counter where we keep a small "Owl's Nest" cheese dip container of owl pellets. Hmmm...maybe she can read and that's why she thinks it's a good spot. I wonder if the company makes really big cheese dip containers....

Then this morning I had a big, wicker basket I intended to put up as an artificial nest for the wild owls on the side kitchen counter. It did not escape Alice's attention. She hopped in, even though it had no lining whatsoever, and scratched around in it. When she hopped out I filled it with basswood shavings and that was too much--she was right back in it, scratching around. Seems to "fit" just right.

But she still went up to her room and (after caching her leftover gopher by the bookcase) is sleeping on her nest basket. But don't let that fool you--she'll still hoot anytime either of us sticks our head in her room during the day. The photo of her on this nest basket is taken in mid-hoot--note the inflated gular sac which makes her look like a frog and the tail cocked up.

Maybe having lots of nest choices will get her to lay an egg...or maybe it'll just confuse her. At any rate, I'm trying to be very solicitous this year to see if we can make an egg.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Another Artificial Nest Attempt

I really, really, really, really, really want to get wild Great Horned Owls nesting in our yard to help my vocal study on the species. Yes, this will take a miracle, but I'm trying to help things along by putting up some more artificial nests for the owls to choose from.

Last fall (with the help of Tri-County Electric Company's boom truck!) we put up an artificial nest made from a wide cone of chicken wire lined with tar paper with sticks interwoven, and lined with wood shavings. ( No takers, although I think Wheezy wanted a shot at it when she came up into the pine trees where the nest was located and hooted on two separate occasions. Since the nest wasn't in her territory (anymore), her mate Wendell was less than willing to help her take possession of it.

So this fall I put up another nest of a different design. This idea came from The Owl Foundation ( They use laundry baskets lined with wood shavings as nest structures for their large permanently injured but breeding owls like Great Horneds and Great Grays, and the owls take readily to them. Alice has one too, which she's happy to cluck and scratch around in.

So why not give the wild owls the same option?

I got a laundry basket, cut lots of small holes in the bottom for drainage, wove small, fresh pine branches in and out of the holes on the sides for camouflage, filled it with long basswood shavings, and put it up in a different pine tree in our front yard.

You'd think a white laundry basket in the lower branches of a pine tree would stick out like a sore thumb, but it's almost impossible to see! I just looks like a clump of pine branches. I'm hoping the owls find it attractive.

This one has better clearance for flying in/out and has a nice view of the yard and prairie (where there should be good bunny and rodent hunting.) Granted it's within 50 feet of the house, but we're hardly ever out in the yard. And it's on the south side of the house, so Alice doesn't consider that part of her territory (her room is on the north side of the house.)

I've got a big wicker basket that I'd like to reinforce and put up next. I just have to find another good spot for an owl nest. Besides the considerations mentioned above, a HUGE consideration for me is keeping it close to the house so that a nest cam is feasible (and sound recording, and hopefully direct observation....)

Lately the resident owls have been a mile down the road hooting at poor bachelor Wendell (his mate Wheezy died of West Nile Virus early this fall). I didn't realize Victor and Virginia went that far until my neighbor started taping the owls hooting at his place. But it does explain why the nights he hears owls I don't, and when I do he doesn't.

Sooner or later Victor and Virginia should be back here, and if Alice is any indication, Virginia should be starting to think about nests and trying some out for size any time now....

Sunday, October 29, 2006

It'll Be A LONG Breeding Season!

There are different kinds of hoots for different things. There's the mad hoot, the emphatic hoot, and then the one most people know: the tail-cocked territorial/hormonal hoot that's repeated, has very little variation, and you won't likely see/hear during the summer months.

The tail-cocked hoot starts up in the fall when the young owls disperse and the adults are letting the young ones know "Hey, this territory is occupied!" Then the level of hooting escalates as breeding season approaches, with the hooting peaking in January or February, at least around here in southern Minnesota.

For Alice, the fall tail-cocked hoots usually start in late October. Then they pick up steam to the point that in February last year she would actually hoot in public! (This was great for our TV and radio appearances to promote the Festival of Owls.) Then they taper off by the end of March.

That makes for a LONG breeding season as far as I'm concerned, since as "Alice's mate" I'm expected to hoot with her. And she likes to do half-hour hooting sessions multiple times per day.

This year is starting hot and heavy. Alice has been doing her tail-cocked hoots for about a month now, and we're already to the point where I'm expected to do at least two half hour hooting rounds every day.

These start the second I set foot out of the bedroom (or before if I'm a little later than usual getting up.) She literally is on the hall railing, ready and waiting, and starts hooting the second I'm out the bedroom door. She runs/hops down the railing to be close to me, and we lean into each other and take turns hooting.

Alice really likes us to be nose-to-beak during these sessions, at least for the first part of each session. Seriously. She'll lean forward to have her face in my hair or her beak actually touching my nose. If my head is lower than hers, she will nibble at my ear, hair, nose, cheek, or whatever else is handy. Thankfully we're to the nibble stage since a couple of weeks ago these were more bites than nibbles--she can be a bit rough.

And she will actually grab at me with her foot if she thinks I'm leaving. Once I was standing on the stairs, ready to go take a shower and she jumped at the clothes I was carrying. She missed and wound up at the bottom of the stairs. That's too aggressive for my tastes!! I've since learned to go step by step, hoot by hoot to head downstairs so she doesn't get so grabby.

Normally I've got a full bladder at this point of the morning, and can't manage more than a few minutes without a potty break. Normally Alice likes to have visual contact with me when we hoot, but she's gotten desperate enough already that she'll hoot with me while I'm in the bathroom, which is just at the bottom of the stairs.

Some people sing in the shower; I hoot in the shower.

Then we're scheduled for another hooting bout in the evening after supper. This one I'm better at obliging. I've gotten so that I can sit in the hallway by Alice's room while we hoot and read a book at the same time. There's multi-tasking for you.

Although I can tolerate these levels of hooting, I know it's only going to escalate. And it's going to go on for MONTHS unless our lady lays an egg this year (or I get her to sit on the replica Great Horned Owl egg I now have.)

Did I mention that one of the reasons owls don't make good pets is the hooting thing....?

Thankfully, Ken can fill in for me sometimes, and attached is a photo of him doing a hooting session with Alice right after he got up for the day.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Of Bills & Tipping

So how much do you tip on a bill?

In Alice's case, it probably depends on how much needs to come off.

I'm talking about the bill (beak) on Alice's face, if that helps.

Bills (or beaks if you prefer) are made out of the same stuff (keratin) as our fingernails, and like fingernails, they are always growing. Somehow they grow so that they self-sharpen and wear down continuously into the same basic shape. Little flakes, chips, and bits come off here and there to help keep them in shape. Without enough wear and tear and exposure to the elements, however, bills can get overgrown.

In captivity owl beaks sometimes need to be coped (trimmed.) For Alice, this has needed to happen once every year or two. But we're well over a year, and things have been flaking/breaking/wearing fairly well.

Her lower mandible was getting a bit long and not breaking off (so her mouth didn't close completely), so I finally took a fingernail clipper to it and patiently but carefully got off as much as the little clipper could handle, which wasn't much. Now Alice's upper mandible is working to adjust.

I thought Alice had a chunk of gopher stuck to the tip of her bill the other day. I looked closely because she was going to have some close-up facial photos done. I tried to pick the bump off with my fingernail, and realized it wasn't gopher at all--it was the tip of her bill itself!

It's a hard little knob that will certainly come off in time. It's too hard to pick off with my fingernail yet, but I've contemplated taking the trimmer to it. So hence the question: How much do you tip on a bill?

But instead I think I'll let Alice do her thing and see how long the bump takes to come off on its own. Then I'll have to pay REALLY close attention and see if I can find it when it does come off. That'll take a miracle, but I have found bigger bill flakes several times before. If they come off the front of her bill they tend to look like raisins. Flakes from the side look like, well, flat pieces off the side of a bill. This one will be a little nubbin.

I've circled the bump on the tip of Alice's bill in the photo. It's not super-noticeable--that is unless you're hooting nose to beak with her.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Losing a Neighbor Owl to West Nile Virus

I've got all of our local owls named and can tell them by voice. But in August one of those neighbor owls was found in my human neighbor's farmyard. It appeared to have West Nile Virus (along with some maggots in a developing primary.)

It looked small to me, so I assumed it was a male. (But everything looks small compared to Alice!) The beak had much layering to it, which made me think it was an old bird and likely a territory holder. But I was pretty sure it wasn't Wendell, our previously resident male. I had taken an owl out of the neighbor's chicken coop that I'm pretty sure was Wendell, and he was so unaggressive it was hard to believe. I just slowly walked up to him and grabbed his legs. He didn't even struggle much, yet he was perfectly healthy. And he had black feathers on his eyelids.

This owl was terribly aggressive. I've never been seriously bitten by an owl before, and this one gave me a nice bruise on my forearm and drew blood from my hand as I worked to get some fluids into it during its 24 hour wait for a ride to the University of Minnesota Raptor Center.

The diagnosis was West Nile Virus (but official autopsy tested are still pending.) For a Great Horned Owl, that's basically a death sentence. But they gave this bird a chance to try to pull through while they gave supportive care. A sign was posted on its cage warning about its aggressively bitey tendencies.

With time, though, the owl went blind. It was unresponsive unless touched, and wouldn't fly. West Nile Virus had done its damage, and it was permanent. So the bird was euthanized and submitted for West Nile Virus testing this past week.

During the owl's several week stay at The Raptor Center, a silent, lone owl made regular appearances on the farm buildings at my neighbor's farm. I assume our bird's mate was looking for it.

In the meantime, I was listening closely and going back through my notes to see who's hoot was missing from the resident mix. Both Wendell and Wheezy had been absent for some time, but a week ago when our resident male, Victor, started pushing his eastern boundary, Wendell finally showed up to hoot. Without Wheezy. Wheezy nearly always hooted with him. I'm pretty sure she wore the pants in that family.

Today I contacted The Raptor Center about another bird I was sending up and inquired about my neighbor owl. I knew they would likely put it down and submit it for testing, but I was dying to know the sex. Its weight fell in a range that could have been a large male or a small female. While the WNV results were still pending, the sex was listed: female.

That sealed it for me. I'm sure our West Nile Virus victim was Wheezy. She was the owl that taught me I could tell individual owls apart by their voice, since she had such a distinctive hoot. At least I got to see her before she left this world.

Poor Wendell is so unaggressive, will he find a mate? Maybe some aggressive young hotty will pin him down. Theoretically there should be a lot of young "floater" birds just hanging out, waiting for a vacancy like this. But I haven't heard any juveniles this year or last, so I'll be very curious to see (hear) what happens in the near future....

Below is a photo of Wheezy that I took after I picked her up. You can hear her hoot on my "Meet the Owls" page at I'll never forget her hoot.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Owl Style Bath

Great Horned Owls do bathe, but they aren't like screech-owls who like to bathe every day if given the opportunity. Alice is more than happy to bathe once every two weeks or so in the summertime, and maybe once a month in the winter.

Rain often gets Alice in the mood for a bath. But she's gotten spoiled. (Imagine that!) We've caught her standing on the edge of her bath pan more than once, just looking at us as if to say "would you please give me a shower so I can take a proper bath?"

So we squirt her with a squirt bottle, and depending on how badly she's in the mood for a bath, she may hop into her bath pan within 60 seconds, or it make take a few minutes of hopping from one side to the other of her bath pan before she takes the plunge.

Once she's in, it's mess time. You thought your kids made a mess when they're in the tub? Ha! Alice throws her body and face into it and keeps dipping and ruffling her wings, splashing water all over Timbuktu. But occasional she's only in the mood for a "foot and beak bath" where she hikes up her skirt so she only gets her feet wet and dips just her bill in every now and then. Quite dainty.

In reality, Alice just acts like an overgrown robin in slow motion in a birdbath.

If she's NOT in the mood for a bath and we squirt her, she usually jumps off her perch and runs someplace else. She makes it quite obvious she's not in the mood for bathing.

I don't think many folks have had the privilege of observing a Great Horned Owl in such private matters as bathing. Laura Erickson, staff ornithologist for, has again been kind enough to post this video file on at

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Miss Manners

At age 9 1/2, it's high time Alice went to finishing school. This was prompted by the footing she gave me in late July and stern warnings from Marge Gibson, Alice's rehabber, and the University of Minnesota Raptor Center that human-imprinted Great Horned Owls have a tendency to turn nasty as they age.

I won't deny for a second that Alice is spoiled. She very certainly is. But there are some behaviors I was letting her get away with that needed to be changed.

1. The "pick up perch." Alice insisted on only being picked up from one certain perch in her room and no others. If she was on another perch, she flew away from me to either the "pick up" perch or another, depending on if she wanted to go to work or not. At Marge's suggestion, the "pick up" perch was removed.

I was concerned that by removing this major perch, Alice would have trouble getting around in her room. It turns out it made more space for her, and forced her to get into better shape to get around!

Bonus was that Alice no longer had her favorite perch to fly to when I went to pick her up. I made sure she didn't go anywhere other than onto my glove by grabbing her jesses (the leather straps that are always on her legs). This went over like a lead balloon at first, and more than once one stubborn owl hung upside down from my fist. I just had to be more stubborn than her, and now she's much more cooperative about getting onto the glove.

2. Curbing the biting habit. For whatever reason, some owls just have a snit about getting onto the glove. Once there, they're fine. Alice is one of those owls. She would always bite at the glove when I went to pick her up (unless she was majorly distracted by a cat or a dog.) And she would only step BACK onto the glove, not forward. I never pushed the issue since trying to make her step forward always seemed to result in more biting (thankfully she rarely bit hard.)

So I started teaching her to step UP (forward.) Every time she bit at the glove, I would quickly move it just out of biting distance and firmly tell her "no bite." At first I had to do this 50-100 times each time I went to pick her up (and I don't think that's an exaggeration.) But patience (or sheer stubbornness) is the key here. After refusing to allow her to bite the glove consistently every time I picked her up, she's gotten to the point where she doesn't even try to bite when picked up from some perches (her nest basket and work perches being notable exceptions.)

She voluntarily steps UP from some perches now, but we still have a ways to go.

3. Scratching at her window. When we moved Alice inside, I'm sure she didn't understand the concept of a window, and that's why she scratched at it. But it drove us nuts, so every time she scratched at the window, we came in to check on her. Even an owl brain can quickly figure out "scratching window = attention." And that's what it became...a means to get attention. It also seemed to be a bit of a displacement behavior, where she wanted something else and did the window scratching instead, but heck if I could ever figure out what she wanted other than attention.

So now whenever Alice scratches at her window, she's picked up and taken out of her room. If I'm up getting ready for work, I bring her downstairs with me (where she gives herself one heck of a workout rearranging and "killing" every blanket and pillow in the living room.) Or if I want to stay in bed a bit longer, I just bring her out into the hall.

This has curbed the window scratching fairly quickly. I think it was all a matter of attention. Now in the morning instead of scratching at her window at 6:45 AM, she scratches at the bedroom door (where I'm sleeping) until she lets herself in. Then she proceeds to "cache" every loose article of clothing in the closet or on the bed and eventually settles in to sleep on my dresser.

In the evenings I no longer send her upstairs after work. She chooses if she wants to go up or if she wants to have a good romp in the living room first.

Although many would say that owls are wise, I'd certainly agree that they are great at everything they need to do in the wild. But when it comes to learning concepts that have nothing to do with survival (like stepping onto a glove), Great Horned Owls can be slow, stubborn, resistant, and downright maddening. But we're making steady progress.

Alice won't graduate from finishing school anytime soon, but hopefully she's learning some manners (and I'm learning to have more patience.)

Friday, August 25, 2006

Alice Sees Red

Owls apparently have long memories for significant things like locations of predators. So it's going to take Alice a while to appreciate the fact that her two nemeses (the cats) have found a new and loving home far enough away they won't be coming back. It's only been two days, but she's still very arduously looking for them every time we go outside.

Anyway, two owl biologist friends of mine engaged in a discussion about whether owls can see red light. Some biologists use red filters on their lights on the assumption that owls can't see red light, but this hasn't been proven. Then there's the question of if they can see infrared light. How could they find out for sure? Ask Alice.

And so it came to be that Alice became a guinea pig to see if indeed owls can see red light.

This was kind of a fun one. I waited until after dark, when Alice was just sitting on the hall railing, not really looking out the windows or anything. I started with a laser pointer, since I know she gets very interested in following that red dot around on the wall and floor. And as expected, she got very interested in the red dot and watched it zip around on the walls, ceiling, and floor.

Then on to the flashlight with a red filter. (No problem to come up with since my husband has a thing for flashlights and has more than I care to count.) The light, of course, was not as focused as a tight little laser beam, and I had quite a bit of trouble getting her interested in it.

At first I didn't think she could see the light since she wasn't following it at all as I moved it around on the ceiling and walls. But with patience, Alice finally paid attention to that big red spot on the wall. She tracked it as I moved it up on the ceiling over her head to the point her head was almost upside down over her back. No room for doubt there...she would never do that kind of rubber-necking without a good reason. A second try got her to repeat the performance, so she was in fact tracking the red light.

Then I tried infrared. Thanks to a grant from the Wilson Ornithological Society and a nice discount from, I have a generation 2 night vision scope to use in my Great Horned Owl vocal study (so I can observe the behavioral context of the vocalizations.) I turned on the infrared (IR) illuminator and projected it on the wall to see if Alice would notice it. No amount of patience, movement, or anything could get Alice to notice it.

I also checked the response of Alice's pupils to the lights. They did contract slightly when a red-filtered light was shined in them. I couldn't tell on the infrared, since I was too close for the night vision to focus properly, and there was sharp contrast that my eyes couldn't deal with between illuminated and unilluminated areas. But I certainly wasn't going to shine a laser pointer in her eye!

So there you have it: crude and unscientific proof that Alice sees red.

Speaking of experiments on owls, I found a discussion thread about whether or not Great Horned Owls could hear the drumming of Ruffed Grouse. So I played one of my bird CDs on a computer hooked up to speakers with a subwoofer that can handle the low sounds well. She never let on in any way that she could hear it...but she also didn't seem to pay any attention to the higher pitched calls of the Ruffed Grouse played right after the drumming.

Attention span is definitely a factor in this sort of a thing.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


It was bound to happen sooner or later. It just happened later than sooner. After having Alice for nearly eight years, she finally footed me.

"Footed" is the term used when someone is grabbed by a hawk or owl's talons, usually doing some damage in the process. Alice has certainly grabbed me with her talons before, but it's never been with the intention of hurting me. This time there was some intention and some damage.

Alice and I work "second shift" on Saturdays, leaving for work at the Houston Nature Center around noon. Owls are birds of routine, and Alice has one particular perch that I'm allowed to pick her up from to take her to work. If she's on any other perch in her room, I have to pretend like I'm trying to pick her up, she gets annoyed, and sooner or later she jumps/flies to the appropriate perch.

Yesterday Alice was snoozing on her nest basket when it was time to leave for work at noon. She doesn't like stepping forward, just stepping backward, so I put my gloved left hand behind her. She got agitated and looked like she was going to hop to another side of her basket, so I put my ungloved right hand behind her. I've done this a million times.

This time she pounced on my right arm and nailed it. It involved talons and beak, but happened so fast I can't even remember where she went from my arm, but I think it was to the correct perch.

Absolutely stunned, I immediately saw why Alice had attacked me: she had a big, fat, juicy, gopher head cached in the back of her nest. My right hand was headed straight towards it when she footed me.

Since Alice was now in position and I wasn't really bleeding, I picked her up on my glove and headed downstairs to put her leash on. (She always hops onto my husband's kitchen chair for this procedure.)

When she was on the chair, I inspected my arm. One talon cut on the forearm and one of the back of my hand, neither bleeding (plus some skin missing on my thumb from her beak). Not good, since if the talons went in much at all, punctures like this can get infected. I squeezed some blood out, washed the cuts with soap and water, hit them with some rubbing alcohol, then bandaged them up so I didn't get blood on my clothes. And off we went to work.

Soon I noticed my hand didn't want to work as well as it should. Oddly enough, the area just forward of the cut on my hand was swollen (not where the talon went in), and was tender. So I assume that even though the talon only left a very small hole, it went into the muscle a ways.

Three hours later I was peeling a grapefruit with my pocket knife and sliced my thumb on the same hand. About then I was ready to go home and start the day over. Jeepers!

My hand is still swollen today, but my forearm is fine. I'll be watching my hand for any signs of infection. This is just one of the hazards of working with owls that was bound to happen sooner or later. I'm surprised it wasn't an injured wild owl that got me first. I guess I need to keep closer tabs on those gopher heads!

In the photo you'll notice the (non-Alice) scrape on my left hand before you notice the very minor looking mark on my right hand and the swelling. The talon mark is on the back of my right hand below my first and second fingers. Looks pretty insignificant, other than the swelling....

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Heart Rate

Normal Great Horned Owls aren't above putting cats on their menu. Alice is anything but normal. She's terrified of cats.

She proved just how much cats freak her out a few years ago. My normal routine to take her to work involves going up to her room, getting her onto the correct perch (according to Alice there's only one "correct" perch to pick her up from), take her downstairs, she hops onto my husband's kitchen chair, I tie her leash to the leather jesses always on her ankles, and away we go.

Well, a few years ago she started flying back up to the hall railing every time I tried to take her downstairs. She made it very clear she wasn't going anywhere. I had my suspicions that the root of the problem was a stray cat that had started hanging around our yard. It sometimes hung around the bird feeders, and I'm sure Alice had seen it kill birds.

I was right. My husband "took care of" the stray cat and I had no more troubles getting Alice to go to work.

Our (outside) dog died last year, making Alice a pretty happy camper (she's deathly afraid of all dogs of all sizes.) But about a month after he died, a stray cat moved onto our property. It eventually got tame, despite rebuffing all contact with the cat for Alice's sake. Then a second cat moved in and the same thing happened...wild at first, but then it tamed down with no encouragement from us. Both are tomcats and they fight every day. And I've stopped feeding birds.

These cats bother Alice. Every time I take her out to the car to go to work, the cats are right there at my feet. Alice puffs up and does defense displays, hisses at them, etc., but the cats are too dumb to be scared of her!! How's that for sick and twisted: a Great Horned Owl that's deathly afraid of two cats who aren't afraid of the Great Horned Owl.

I realized just how much these cats are bothering Alice one morning when there happened to be no appliances, heat, air conditioning, or anything making any sound at all in the house. As she hopped onto the back of Ken's chair I could hear her heart pounding!

Her heart was just racing. It was very difficult to count the beats per minute, but I tried a few times and always got between 50-60 beats per 10 seconds. That's about 330 beats per minute! (Go to to hear it.)

That seemed really high to me, but I didn't know what her resting heart rate was for comparison. So a couple of times at work when it was perfectly silent and nothing mechanical was running, I was able to put my ear against her chest while she snoozed on her perch. This didn't seem to bother her in the least, and I came up with 15 beats per 10 seconds, or only 90 beats per minute. Wow, what a difference from the "cat heart rate"!

But birds have amazing cardiovascular abilities...way beyond what us mere humans can do. So I did a little checking to see what heart rate information I could find on other birds.

One study gave resting heart rates for three Snowy Owls (fairly close relatives of Great Horned Owls) outdoors in the winter in a range from 131-222 beats per minute (BPM). Another study gave a resting heart rate for the Ural Owl at about 215 BPM, with an excited heart rate (while being restrained) at 395 BPM. The same study showed resting and excited heart rates for Short-eared Owls at 224 and 445 BPM respectively. The excited heart rates were close to 200% higher than resting.

Alice is bigger than both Ural and Short-eared Owls, which would likely give her a lower heart rate. And she's housed at comfortable room temperature for humans (68-75 degrees Fahrenheit), accounting for some of the difference between her and these reports. Her heart rate increase from resting to excited, though, is approximately 367%. Uff da!

Not like this is the most scientific study ever done by any stretch of the imagination, but Alice is showing a major heart rate response to her fear of cats.

Anyone want a cat??? My husband has gotten to know these two and is reluctant to "take care of them".....

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Alice's Baby X-rays

Next year Alice will turn the big 1-0, and as always, we'll have a "hatch-day" party for her at the Festival of Owls the first weekend in March. In honor of this milestone in Alice's life, her rehabilitator, Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, WI, has agreed to present a special program about the first year and a half of Alice's life which was spent with Marge.

I asked Marge about the possibility of tracking down Alice's baby X-rays that show how badly she messed up her wing that day in 1997 when she fell 60 feet out of her nest, down through a pine tree, and landed on the frozen ground below when she was just three weeks old. Marge had contacted the Antigo Veterinary Clinic looking for other X-rays not long before, and was told that they are not kept after five years, so she didn't think it was possible. Besides, at the time Alice was injured, she was just an anonymous injured owlet

I have no idea why I contacted the vet clinic myself to inquire about Alice's X-rays. Maybe it's because I'm stubborn. But I did call them. I was able to give them the information about species, injury, and approximate date, and I was told they'd get back to me.

A couple of days later my intern at the Houston Nature Center left a message for me: the Antigo Vet Clinic had called. They found the X-ray and would put it in the mail for us to keep. Over nine years later they still had the X-ray! Needless to say I was ecstatic.

Of course I opened the package the second it arrived. It wasn't a full body was kind of in two parts. The lower part showed Alice's wingspread and head, and the upper part had her leg on it. Two exposures in one?? I'm not sure how they do these things....

But Alice's injury was plainly visible: her left elbow was definitely dislocated and swollen. Marge remembers there being a break at the end of the humerus also, but I can't see it. Not that I'm trained to read X-rays either! Alice's current vet, Dr. Laura Johnson in LaCrosse, WI, hasn't had time to look at the X-ray yet to give her professional opinion.

At any rate, now you can see for yourself why Alice is "doomed" to a posh life of air conditioning, favorite foods every night, and commuting to work.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Odd Colored Primary Drops!

Last night when Ken and I were both away at meetings Alice finally dropped her odd-colored primary!! Now the detective work begins....

My original guess was that this feather was missing pigment because it had been injured as it was growing in. This was based on the fact that Alice was messing around with some itchy new feathers growing in on April 24, 2003, as well as on reading Peter Pyle's "Flight-feather Molt Patterns and Age in North American Owls" which concludes that it may take four or more years for Great Horned Owls to replace all primaries and secondaries.

After digging through bags of Alice's molted feathers, I can now say for sure that this hypothesis was wrong! She molted this feather in 2000 (I didn't record dates at that time), 1 January 2002, 1 June 2003, 26 July 2004, and yesterday, 28 June 2006. So she has molted this particular primary TWICE since the blood episode.

So where does that leave things? A mess!! I think I could do a whole study based on this. Uff da!

Apparently Alice is replacing this feather NEARLY every year, but not EVERY year. The 2002 date was likely so early because at that time we brought Alice downstairs to hang out with us in the evenings, exposing her to much more light than she would normally get in the winter. Other molt dates look more normal (June/July) since we no longer bring her downstairs in the evening but allow her to stay upstairs with the lights off.

Reading Pyle's write up on Great Horned Owl molt more closely now, a couple of statements really stick out. He mentions that Weller's concluded in his 1965 study of captive, known-age birds that "more questions concerning molting patterns were raised than were answered." Streseman and Streseman in 1966 suggested that ALL flight feathers were replaced every year. In talking to Kay McKeever of The Owl Foundation, she also says that her captive owls molt all flight feathers each year. But still Pyle concludes that based on his examination of specimens that Great Horned Owls can be reliably aged for their first few years based on the pattern of flight feather molt since not all are replaced every year.

Sometimes not having any preconceived notions is a very good thing. Laying the feathers out this morning, my husband noticed that the bars on the now-blank part of the vane were getting slightly shorter with each molt until this molt, where they were essentially dropped. This certainly appears to be the case if you look closely, although this last molt was quite a jump. (The feathers are arranged from the current feather on the left to the oldest feather on the right.)

Now I'm curious to see if other feathers are losing pigment over the years. White feathers can be a sign of age, but Alice is only nine as is capable of reaching 30-50 years of age in captivity. And it will be especially interesting to see what Alice's replacement feather looks like.

I can track Alice's tail molt quite easily, since she drops all tail feathers every year, and each is distinct enough from the next. But heck if I can manage to figure out which wing feather is which other than a few outer primaries (this one included). Bob Nero (Great Gray Owls) and Eric Forsman (Spotted Owls) both traced molts in owls by using spread wings of prepared specimens to compare feathers. I have yet to be able to do this even though the Houston Nature Center has several spread-wing mounts of Great Horned Owls. My problem is that Alice is MONSTROUS compared to all other Great Horned Owls around here, and no specimens I have even begin to compare to the size of her feathers.

So if anyone up in Canada ever runs across a nice, big, dead Great Horned Owl with an unflattened wing chord measurement in the 385mm range, I would jump at the chance to apply for permits to get it to the U.S. so I can do some proper comparisons!!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

One Hot Owl!

Now that it's warm out again, Alice reveals just how spoiled she is. She pants anytime it gets above 74 degrees Farenheit. How do I know this so precisely? Because I keep the air conditioning at the nature center set at 75, and Alice starts panting just about the time the air conditioning kicks in. How lame is that??

Owls don't sweat. They pant when they get hot. And the big gular sac that puffs out when a Great Horned Owls hoots (just like a frog) pulses in and out when they pant. This is formally known as "gular fluttering." It comes off kind of funny since the back of their tongues are attached basically to the top of the gular sac, so when they pant, their tongue flops up and down. Kids love it.

But when REALLY hot, Alice does more than just pant. She assumes an odd body posture with her plumage compressed and wings drooped (even her good one), exposing her "wing pits" and her legs. It looks weird since normally you don't see Great Horned Owl legs or the insides of their wings when they are just standing there.

The upstairs of our house (where Alice hangs out) is always warmer than downstairs. And Alice is exceedingly out of shape. So when she eats and it's warmer than usual upstairs, she has to take breaks to cool off. That's what she's doing in the photo--hence the bit of gopher on her bill and odd expression on her face (she just took a little bitty princess bite and hasn't swallowed yet, and she closes her eyes when she takes a bite.)

Our hot owl is also into full molt. She lost THREE tail feathers in ONE DAY! Right now she is missing her four middle tail feathers, so she now has a forked tail. Kinda funny. Last year she was missing nearly all of her tail feathers at once, so we called her "stubby." She might be heading in that direction again this year.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Alice Goes to the Movies

Alice the Great Horned Owl, along with my husband Ken and I will be making an appearance at the movie theater in Winona, Minnesota this Saturday evening. What's the occasion? The movie "Hoot" is being released this weekend! In case you haven't heard about it, it's about some kids working to stop a development in Florida that would wipe out a colony of Burrowing Owls. It's based on the book by the same name. You can get full details and find educational material at the movie's website:

The main point of our visit is to raise awareness about owls in need of help, and to let people know what they can do to help owls. We will be getting materials from the folks at the Center for Biological Diversity. Check out the owl part of their website at

Anyone can volunteer to hand out information at the "Hoot" opener at their local theater. Contact the Center for Biological Diversity to have them send you materials ASAP if you'd like to participate.

Otherwise, Ken and I spent some time observing a wild owl nest in Rochester, MN last night. The family of three fledglings are just starting to leave the nest--there was one out and about and two still in the nest. Mom and the kid out of the nest were squawking back and forth, so that was interesting to hear.

Weird as it seems, I'm not a night owl, so I was thankful Ken drove home so I could sleep! (I normally start nodding off around 9:00 PM.)

Alice isn't getting much sleep during the day lately--too many school programs! So for everyone out there who thinks it's funny when I say Alice "works," realize that it is work to stay up when you should be sleeping! :-)

Have a Hoot this weekend.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Molting, Etc.

Not much of interest has been going on in Aliceland lately. The nice news (for me) is that her hormones are finally starting to ebb. She no longer hoots at work, and I can get by with hooting with her just a few minutes each morning right when I get up. I do have to say that three months of incessant hooting was getting a bit annoying...even for me!

The neighbor owls have been hooting in the yard on occasion. I assume they have babies of some size now so that they can be left unattended for longer and longer periods of time. But search as I might, I just plain can't find their nests. I did, however, find another nest 15 miles from here and secured permission from the landowners to observe the nest, but the female is so skittish I can't get anywhere near without her taking off. So I haven't pestered that family much.

I also heard a new (to me) owl a week or so ago--thanks to Alice. She seemed to be watching/listening to something outside, so I put my ear to the open window crack (I can't open Alice's window more than a few inches or we wind up with talon holes in the screen). It was a female with a different hoot way off to the east! I tracked it down to my husband's aunt and uncle's farm a mile east of us (the air must have been just right.) The female's hoot had three syllables to the second part (just like Alice, Virginia & Wheezy), but the third part of her hoot had two syllables (Alice & Virginia have 1ish-going-on-two, and Wheezy has three.) Her mate had a hoot with the same rhythm as Wendell. I wasn't able to get them on tape, though. Bummer!

But Alice did finally begin her annual molt. It takes a few years for all wing feathers to be replaced, and if my assumptions are correct, she should drop her oddly-colored primary this year. I'm anxious to look at it up close, and to see what the new feather looks like. Will it be oddly colored too, or will it revert to the normal coloration??

The photo of the primary Alice dropped yesterday is much smaller than actual size. It's 12.5 inches long. Big feather, huh?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Cloacal Kiss

Birds only have one "out" door, and it's called the cloaca. So when mating season rolls around, that all-purpose door comes into use again.

Speaking of mating season, Alice has been hootier than ever. This is the first year she's ever hooted in public (and she does it right on cue almost every time I lean forward and hoot to her.) But I've never quite gotten a good handle on the finer details of Great Horned Owl mating behavior.

After doing some digging and talking to a very few folks who have actually witnessed Great Horned Owls doing the deed, I was a little surprised to realize that male Great Horned Owls have the good sense not to try to sidle up to the females and hop on their backs from there. (They'd most likely get bitten, from my experiences!) Instead they fly over and just plain LAND on the backs of the females! That ought to require some good maneuvering skills.

Since I can't exactly fly over and land on Alice's back, I tried something else. When she gets EXCEEDINGLY hooty, she will let me put my hand and forearm on her back. She just holds her head down and keeps hooting. So one day I checked out the back end to see if anything noticeable was happening.

I guess I must have blushed. The feathers around her cloaca parted and lowered, just like the rear hatch on a cargo plane opening. And not only was her cloaca exposed completely, it was making repeated "kissing" motions about once per second. Seriously--it looked just like someone doing an exaggerated kiss over and over, and I could even hear it! Uff da, a little much for this shy Norwegian girl!

So since I don't have breeding permits or "the right stuff" to do the deed, there's not much I can do about the whole situation. But out of curiosity, I tried a few more times to see if I could elicit the same behavior. At the nest, no. On her window perch, almost always when she's hooty. The other thing I've noticed is that when she's really excited/hooty, she will leave the last syllable off her normal hoot. This seems to indicate a level of receptiveness as far as I can figure, since every time she hoots like that, she very willingly lowers the hatches when I put my hand on her back.

This is probably WAY more than any of you wanted to know (except for the most die-hard owl biologists). But at least now I know why mating in birds is sometimes nicely referred to as the "cloacal kiss."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Festival of Owls 2006

Alice celebrated her 9th hatch-day at the 4th annual Festival of Owls in Houston, MN this past weekend. How many owls do you know of that have 400 people in attendance when their odometer clicks over each year? ;-)

Although the weekend is packed with owl activities, there were some notable highlights. All expectations were exceeded when a wild Northern Saw-whet Owl was caught in a banding setup a few miles outside of Houston. Spring banding isn't that common, and the site was selected strictly on the basis of aerial photos and willing landowners, so catching an owl was remarkable in and of itself. Timing was great, since the bander, Greg Munson of Quarry Hill Nature Center, brought the owl into the banquet just as the meal was finishing but before our keynote speaker began. Greg had some students from the audience assist him with measurements, etc, but the look on his face was priceless when he exclaimed "Karla!" twice and then exclaimed, "It's BANDED!" We're waiting to hear back from the bird banding lab to find out where it was originally banded.

That little saw-whet left keynote speaker David H. Johnson, Director of the Global Owl Project, with a tough act to follow. But David was not upstaged in the slightest! His program on owls in lore, culture and conservation was fascinating. Throw in a picture of me wearing two bedsheets made into a toga holding Alice in a pose like Athena holding her Little Owl, and there were plenty of laughs to go around too.

There was plenty of owl-themed food around town. The Lutheran church put on an owl face pancake breakfast, complete with real maple syrup harvested by the youth group in January! (Remember those few warm days in January? The sap really ran!) The Baptist church wrapped up the evening with Morepork Owl sandwiches and other owl themed food, and most of the restaurants in town had owl-themed food, or food (like pizzas) in the shape of owls.

Saturday's live owl programs, presented by the Raptor Education Group of Antigo, WI, are always a hit. They bring live Saw-whet, Eastern Screech-, Long-eared, Barred, and Barn Owls...add in Alice and you have six different species all under the same roof. There were all kinds of other programs, like an owl calling workshop, build an owl for young kids, a program about the Global Owl Project, etc. The face painting was a big hit. Just ask David Johnson--he had his face painted like a Spectacled Owl! (See photo.)

The owl prowls didn't turn up much for wild owls, but there was a Barred Owl previously hit by a car that was released.

Sunday brought lots of wet snow. Not so good for driving, but it worked nicely for our Photographer's Brunch with the Owls. Many of the live owls from the programs (including Alice) were set up in a wooded, outdoor setting across the road from a great little restaurant. The photographers took turns photographing the birds in a natural setting, then headed inside to warm up with a nice, hot breakfast. At the conclusion around noon, the owl handlers and owls headed in to eat. I think the other restaurant goers got quite a kick out of the owls sitting at the table with us while we ate!

But one of the most special parts of the Festival was presenting the first-ever Owl Hall of Fame awards. These awards are sponsored by the Festival of Owls, Global Owl Project, Manitoba Great Gray Owl Fund, and Raptor Education Group, and are intended to bring public recognition to those humans and owls working hard to make this world a better place for owls. This year the awards were North American in scope, but will likely be expanded to a global level in the future. Two awards were presented--the Champion of Owls award for humans, and the Lady Gray'l award for owls. (Lady Gray'l was a famous Great Gray Owl from Manitoba who spent a 21 year career living and working with biologist Dr. Robert W. Nero. Together they raised money to fund six graduate students working on owl research, got the Great Gray Owl named Manitoba's provincial bird, and taught thousands about owls.)

Dr. Eric Forsman flew in from Oregon to receive the Lady Gray'l award for his Spotted Owl, Fat Broad. He rescued her from her nest in 1970, and used her to teach thousands about Spotted Owls before, during, and after the heat of the Spotted Owl/logger controversy. She taught Eric a few things about molt, breeding biology, and allopreening, and Eric in turn published those findings in scientific journals. She was featured in Life Magazine's year in pictures for 1990, perched on the should of a tough looking logger. After a 32 year career working with Eric, Fat Broad died in her Eric's arms on Valentine's Day 2002. Oh, and she was named after the big lady with a club in the comic strip "B.C." for her propensity towards obesity as a chick. This was in 1970--way before the term "politically correct" was even coined!

The judges absolutely could not choose between the top two people for the Champion of Owls award, and thus presented two awards this year. Katherine (Kay) McKeever, president and founder of The Owl Foundation, was unable to be present to receive her award in person, although she was the Festival of Owls' keynote speaker in 2004. She has worked with owls for over 40 years. Her early efforts focused on rehabilitation, and she wrote the "bible" of owl rehab that has been sold in nearly 30 countries and has gone through numerous editions and printings. Her most recent efforts have focused on cage design and breeding permanently injured owls to release their progeny into the wild in their stead. Few, if any, people know more about owl behavior than Kay. Being in her 80s and recovering from a fractured femur, we can understand why she was unable to attend!

Dr. Robert (Bob) Nero was the other recipient of the Champion of Owls award. He was THE pioneering Great Gray Owl researcher. His book on Great Grays published by Smithsonian Institution Press is not only authoritative, but Bob's poetic side also comes through. Working for Manitoba Conservation, Bob helped write management plans for several owl species. And after he saved one little Great Gray Owl chick from certain death in the 1980s, he and Lady Gray'l went on to teach thousands about Great Gray Owls and raise money for more owl research. Now in his 80s also, Bob had a commitment to speak at an upcoming symposium in Duluth in two weeks, and was understandably unable to receive his award at the Festival.

More information about the Owl Hall of Fame awards and recipients will be posted on the Global Owl Project website shortly at

So how did Alice handle it all? She hooted. And hooted and hooted and hooted. Just ask David Johnson--he slept (or tried to) in the room next to Alice's. She hooted almost all night for several nights. Thankfully I was able to tune her out. David did comment, however, that if he's going to be woken up, he couldn't think of a better way to do it. :-)

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Hooting Up a Storm

What do you get when you cross an owl and a goat?

-A Hootenanny.

Groaner!!! But it reminds me of what's going on around here lately (minus the goat part.) Alice has been hooty like she's never been before.

Just how hooty is Alice? Take this morning for instance. Twice I blew my nose downstairs in the bathroom, and both times it triggered Alice to hoot. Now if that isn't hooty, I don't know what is.

Just setting foot on the landing at the base of the stairs (where the bathroom is), talking in the kitchen, or setting foot outside of our bedroom door are all enough to send Alice into a hooting fit.

And Alice is now hooting at work! She's never done that before unless she was upset. Now she hoots when I talk on the phone, or when there are visitors if I lean towards her and hoot. And these are tail-cocked hoots, not just regular hoots. There was a first grade boy who visited the Houston Nature Center yesterday. He's grown up listening to owl calls, and he could do the perfect rhythm hoot for a male Great Horned Owl--good enough that Alice responded to his hoot by hooting back!

Along with the excessive hootiness comes excessive nestiness. At home she dives into her nest basket (a laundry basket lined with wood shavings mounted on the wall of her room) every morning and every evening when she hasn't seen my husband or I for several hours. Then she does lots of excited "clucking" and digs and digs and digs. When she digs, she puts her face down and bites onto something if she can, and clenches her feet and scrapes them backward. I'm surprised she hasn't dug down to China yet!

But no eggs. That's good from the standpoint of doing educational programs with Alice (if she laid eggs she'd want to sit on them for at least a month.) But I'm dying to see nesting behavior, so I'm a little bummed in that department.

Ever since Alice has gone overboard with her hormones and hootiness, she's started tolerating more touching. She's never been a touchy-feely gal, but when she's totally absorbed in her hooting, she will tolerate me hugging her, feeling for a brood patch, feeling the flesh on her keel, touching her toes, and--get this--feeling her gular sac (the throat pouch that poofs out when she hoots) while she's hooting! It feels more leathery than I would have expected, but it vibrates when she hoots. Kinda cool. But keep in mind she's merely tolerating this--she doesn't seem to derive any pleasure from it.

I hadn't heard boo from the neighbor owls for about a month until last night. Victor and Virginia hooted some off to the east, and came closer after Alice started hooting inside (in response to my husband going up to her room.) Wendell and Wheezy hooted some too, but WAY off to the east of here.

So that's what's been going on lately--just a heck of a lot of hooting. Loud, too. The filament in the light bulb in Alice's room was vibrating last night each time she hooted!

Aren't you glad you don't have an owl living in your house???

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Anatomy of a Hoot

Territorial hooting is a thing unto itself. I prefer to call it "hormonal" hooting, "tail-cocked" hooting, or a "hoot-a-thon" since territorial hooting is also a mate-attracting thing and not just about territory.

Alice doesn't start her tail-cocked hoots until fall, but once they start they continue through until spring. It's a goofy looking thing to see. The first time I saw an image of a Great Horned Owl in this hooting posture, I just thought it was a really bad picture. Now I know was a really GOOD and accurate picture!

This type of hoot is given repeatedly (not always at the same intervals). It is also given while leaning forward with wings drooped slightly and the tail cocked nearly vertically. As with all hoots, the gular sac (or throat pouch) puffs out like a frog with each syllable of the hoot, and the beak is SHUT. When Alice is really in the hooting mood, she sometimes will hold her gular sac slightly out/inflated between hoots, but I don't think it's humanly (owly?) possibly to hold it fully inflated when there isn't the big air movement of a hoot going on.

In between hoots, the head comes up slightly and the tail goes down slightly. Then the next hoot comes, the head goes down, the tail goes up, and the body and gular sac heave with the effort of each hoot.

Apparently just like it's tough to swallow when you're looking off to the side, it's not easy to hoot unless you're facing forward. And Alice always likes to face what she's hooting at--either me or one of the wild owls. If I move around behind her while she's doing a hoot-a-thon, she'll turn around to face me.

The slightest (appropriate) noise can distract a hooting owl, so sometimes you'll hear a long pause between hoots, messing up the normal rhythm. Cats and wild owls are the chief cause of this at our house.

It's funny to watch Alice "come down" from a hoot-a-thon. As she gradually peters out, her tail slowly drops below horizontal and eventually returns to the normal downward position.

So there you have it--more than you ever wanted to know about hooting. Now you're one of the few people on earth that know what a hooting owl and a croaking frog have in common....