Sunday, July 29, 2007

Big Plans!

It's been quite a while since I've written anything, but not a whole lot happens in the owl world during the summer if you don't have young learning how to hunt in your yard. Alice isn't saying much, aside from our little one-minute hoot exchanges in the morning and evening. And the neighbor owls, while occasional sighted on our property, have had almost zero to say for the past few months.

So my mind started dreaming....

I'm getting deeper and deeper into this Great Horned Owl vocal study thing. I'll be presenting the results of the repertoire end of things at the World Owl Conference in the Netherlands this fall ( And I've started getting more serious about the regional variation in territorial hooting by teaming up with Bruce Marcot (, the vocalizations team leader for the Global Owl Project.

One thing that I'm finding virtually impossible to do is record vocalizations at the nest before egg laying, during incubation, and the sounds made by the itty bitty nestlings. Hence my scheme....

I'm planning to get a pair of permanently damaged Great Horned Owls that can't survive in the wild to use as a captive breeding pair in an outdoor cage. I would build cages to Kay McKeever's specs (I doubt anyone has done more with cage design for breeding injured owls in the world than Kay--see The Owl Foundation's website at, and outfit the cage with a night vision camera controlled by a joystick, complete with audio recording capabilities.

I would also need a release training cage so the young can naturally "disperse" from Mom and Dad in the fall, and I can then train them to hunt on live critters in their cage. I would retain the young until spring to hear their practice and eventual mastery of their territorial hoots, then release them to the wild.

Over the years I should be able to get a good handle on how an individual's hoot develops and what resemblance it bears to the parents' hoots. Plus I'll be able to record all the quiet vocalizations that happen around the nest and get a good understanding of what Mom and Dad have to say to each other.

This is no tiny dream. It will likely be a lifetime commitment, and will require investing thousands of dollars in cage materials and A/V equipment. (Just in case you still fostered any hope that I'm not totally kooky, this should take care of that...I don't exactly have thousands of dollars just lying around waiting to be used for cage building!) And I hope I can get a male and female who will accept each other as mates on the first shot! (The owls do have a say in these matters.)

Also required for this dream to materialize are the blessings of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Permits are most definitely required, and this is not a normal permit request.

I've spoken to Kay McKeever about this, and she seems wholly supportive of the idea and what I can learn from it. She also fine tuned the cage design I had been looking at in her owl rehab "bible" - Care and Rehabilitation of Injured Owls. We're looking at a breeding cage that's 36 feet long by 14 feet wide by 12 feet high connected by an 8 foot long corridor to a release training cage that's 60 feet long by 10 feet wide by 14 feet high. It's basically 2x4 construction with various coverings of fiberglass board (for total privacy and wind protection), spaced wooden boards (for some privacy), and chain link (so they can see what's going on outside of their cage.) The whole deal will be covered with screening to exclude West Nile Virus transmitting mosquitoes.

I've attached a photo of one of the cages at The Owl Foundation from my visit there in November of 2004. It gives a good idea of what the cage construction looks like--and what I hope to have in my backyard sometime soon...complete with owls!

Yes, Alice will likely have something to say about new neighbor owls at first, but the site I've selected is fairly well screened from Alice's usual lookouts by quite a few trees, despite being fairly close to the house. Could be loud for a while, but I'm learning to dream BIG!