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.)