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. :-)