Saturday, December 25, 2010

Pull down the shades!

I was hoping that Iris would settle down in the cage over time, but she still is flying back and forth. So I finally decided it was time for another cage modification: plywood over some of the chain link.

Iris has been hanging on the chain link, but it's always on the top four feet. Owls, like most birds, have a natural tendancy to want to be as high as possible. So if she's going to hang on the wire, she's not going to fly down to do it. I figured if we could cover up the top four feet of chain link in the cage, that should essentially eliminate the hanging opportunities.

I talked to Roger Meyer, cage builder mastermind. I had suggested putting up slats over the chain link, but he recommended thin plywood. This would be easy to do, and there's no way they could hang on it. I agreed.

So Roger came over, took some measurements, got some plywood, cut it to size, and painted it. Then he was over to install it. The whole process only took a few days in typical Roger high-speed style.

We shooed Rusty and Iris into the other cage while the plywood was installed to avoid stressing them more than necessary. All went well with installation, other than needing to cut one additional panel. Piece of cake!

After the guys had cleaned their equipment out of the breeding cage I opened the door between the cages (from the flight cage side.) To get an idea of what the new decor looked like from an owl's point of view I leaned forward through the hatch into the breeding cage. I couldn't see any trees from owl-perch height (just the ground) thanks to the plywood, so I figured all should be well.

But just as I leaned in to start my visual assesment I heard a swoosh of wings and felt something on my shoulder: Rusty! A split second after he landed on my shoulder he left again. I had to smile inside...I know he doesn't see as well as he should, but it made me feel like he wasn't overly scared of me to head straight for me in the first place.

Once I was out of the way it only took a few minutes for Rusty and Iris to move back into their breeding cage, and there was definitely some extra head bobbing going on as they checked out the "screens" that looked like they had been pulled partway down on the walls of their cage.

It seems the screens are diminishing Iris's flying, and she's spending more time at the nest now. Eating and caching there, and occasionally hanging out by Rusty. Hopefully all of these are good signs.

Oh, and for those of you wanting to learn to tell Rusty and Iris apart in black and white, this photo should help a bit. Iris is lighter colored (which mostly helps when they're together until you get used to the difference), but you can see that Iris' bad pupil is smallish and oddly shaped. Rusty's bad pupil is big and round.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Updated Cage Layout

We're still in the process of tweaking the cages so that Rusty and Iris feel comfortable in their new permanent home. We added hide boxes in November, so I've added them to the cage layout diagram here. For the most part the owls don't use the boxes, other than to perch on top of one of them. In a way this is means they aren't scared and feeling like they need a place to hide! I suspect the boxes are more likely to get used during the summer when I'm running the lawn mower....

At any rate, the biggest problem has been Iris hanging on the chain link. We added a couple of perches in the main spots where she hung on the wire and that helped tremendously, but now she's hanging in some new places. The key questions is WHY? It's obviously not out of fear. And I don't think she's trying to catch critters outside or trying to get to another specific perch outside. I think she just plain would like to get out of the cage which unfortunately isn't an option since she's blind in one eye.

I called Roger Meyer, master cage builder, last night to discuss our options. It seems we need to provide a physical barrier to prevent hanging on the chain link. I had suggested adding vertical slats over the chain link, but Roger asked about thin plywood. That seems like the way to go...they can't hang on it at all, and it would be the easiest thing to do.

I don't plan to put plywood over ALL of the chain link...just the top four feet. Owls like to be high and fly high and get higher, so I don't think they will fly down to hang on the wire. This will allow them to see outside still, but mostly just see the ground and grass and critters that are close to the cage. It shouldn't make them want to fly down and hang on the wire.

They will still be able to see some through the existing slats, so it's not like they won't be able to see anything. Rusty seems to deal with the chain link just fine, but Iris can't seem to handle it. Owls adapt slowly to change so I was hoping after two months she'd get used to her boundaries. No dice. So time for yet another cage modification in the interest of the owls' physical and mental health.

Roger's coming over in a couple of days to take measurements, then we'll see how long it takes to round up materials, cut them to size, avoid Christmas get-togethers, and get them installed.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rusty Hoots

If Rusty and Iris are going to breed, they will have to start hooting with each other sooner or later. Iris has hooted before, but it was more out of frustration than as a mating thing. I hadn't heard Rusty do anything more than annoyed chitters when Iris landed on a perch too close to him.

Rusty finally found his hooter! A couple of nights ago Alice gave a single hoot from inside the house. Within one second Iris hooted back and Rusty was just a split second behind her. Alice didn't hoot again, but Iris did some excited staccato hoots (hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo), some empahtic hoots with an extra HOO! on the end, and severa regular hoots.

It took Rusty a bit to get warmed up. His hoots were a little croaky at first. He did some gutteral hoo, hoo, hoos that sounded more like a frog croaking before he got into the hoots. But he must have liked it because he kept on hooting for over five minutes.

I think Rusty and Iris are finally claiming the cage as their territory. They've hooted a couple of times since, and Iris usually hoots when she's looking to the west. I think she can see Alice sitting in the window from there and they watch each other....

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New Perches

Rusty and Iris have been here nearly a month. They haven't gotten themselves all settled yet, as owls are slow to adapt to change. Iris took up the habit of flying around and hanging on the coated chain link fencing, and Rusty would occasionally follow suit. I thought they might settle in and get over it, but they didn't, so it was time to figure out a solution.

So the question do you get inside an owl's head to figure out what it's thinking? Kind of a difficult thing to try to do, but since I've lived with a Great Horned Owl for 12 years, I have a bit of an idea. They were obviously stressed and not settled yet, and the chain link provided an easy opportunity to vent that frustration.

There were two main spots the owls hung on the wire: the east end of the cage above the bath pan, and the west end of the cage near the nest. They always hung on the highest part of the wire. Two possibilities came to mind:

1. Cover the upper four feet of the outside of the cages where there was chain link with a double layer of shade cloth so they couldn't see out. They still could hang on the chain link and it would seriously cut down on their view, so this wasn't my favorite choice

2. Put perches across the places they hung on the wire most so they physically COULDN'T hang on the wire in those places. This is the route we chose.

I called up Roger Meyer, the man who designed and built the cages. He came over, I showed him what I wanted, he took some measurements, he went home and found some branches that would do the trick. He pre-drilled them and put screws in so they could be hung in a jiffy.

Roger came over this morning to hang the perches. First we opened the door between the two cages and kind of shooed Rusty and Iris into the other cage so they wouldn't be so stressed with all the commotion in the cage. It took a bit of doing, but Iris went first and with much coaxing Rusty finally followed...after the guys started working!

First Hein and Roger set up ladders on the west side of the cage and put up a perch just to the left of the nest. The perch crossed right through the middle of the 4' tall by 2' wide wood frame segments, effectively blocking a Great Horned Owl from being able to hang on the wire there. But the perch was close to the wire so the owls couldn't hit it hard and couldn't jump at the wire from the perch.

Next they did the perch near the bath pan. Same deal...across the middle of the 4'x2' sections, 10 feet off the ground. Didn't take long at all.

In the meantime I cleaned up pellets, washed out the bathpan, and refilled it after the guys had their equipment out. Then I shooed Rusty and Iris back into their breeding cage. Again Iris went without much trouble, but Rusty was slow to go. Then I shut the door between the cages.

They were understandably nervous about all the morning's commotion. They flew around but guess what? They mostly just landed on the new perches! Awesome!!

We realized, however, that although the perch above the bath pan can be seen on camera, the perch by the nest is too high to be seen on camera. So guess where they spent the day? On the perch where we couldn't see them.

The infrared illuminator gives enough glare that you can't really see the perch above the bath pan at night, so we have to do some thinking there. And I think I'll mess with the other camera angle, but again we'll be facing glare from the infrared illumator. So perhaps we'll move the illuminator. More to think about!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Alice the Technological Genius

Today I sat down at the brand new computer that was purchased to handle all the video from the Great Horned Owl breeding project. After checking to see what Rusty and Iris were up to, I was going to quick check my e-mail. My login failed. Over and over. I tried logging into my work e-mail account. My login kept failing. I tried it on my computer upstairs and it was fine. Huh???

I knew Alice had been walking around the keyboard of the new computer, but there was no poop or dander in why wasn't it working?? It had to be Alice's fault one way or another.

This evening I sat down to try a few things. I could type out all the letters, small and caps, and all the numbers. That couldn't be the problem. But when I tried to type my password on a sticky note on the computer, it didn't work. I tried both passwords. Both goofed up. What???? I finally realized what was going on: I couldn't type two of the same letters or numbers in a row. Somehow she must have screwed up one of the settings in the control panel.

I found the keyboard part of the control panel. The repeat time was fine. But when I held down a key to test the repeat rate, it only typed the letter once. But there was no place to change the "repeat" settings. So I typed something into the search box and found a filter function that would prevent a letter from being typed twice...there had to be a one or more second delay before the same character could be typed again. And guess what? There was a shortcut to make this happen--hold down the right shift key for more than eight seconds. Aha! It's no problem to imagine an owl foot standing on the right shift key for eight seconds.

So I changed the settings back and disabled the shortcut. Now things run fine, and hopefully Alice won't find any more ingenious keyboard shortcuts (although she turned a screen saver on on my Mac and heck if I can figure out how to disable it again!)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Owl Cage Diagram

It can be a bit tricky to get your bearings watching the Rusty and Iris Ustream video as I change camera views, so here's a rough diagram of the cages. One square equals two feet, and the two cages are actually located end to end.

Click on the image and it will enlarge to full size so you can actually see it without a microscope.

I hope this helps! And don't forget to post your observations of Rusty and Iris here in the comments section of this blog. I'm especially looking for observations of:

-Hoots, chitters, squawks, hisses, bill clacking
-Preening each other
-Digging/scratching in the nest (other than caching food)

Thanks for your help!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


Rusty sleeping with his face in the camera.

If you've been watching the Rusty and Iris cam lately, you've seen a lot of action...that is if you consider SLEEPING to be action. And Rusty has a nice tendency to sleep with his face just inches from the nest camera, with Iris hidden behind him.

Owls sleep during the day. We all knew that. It's a fairly light sleep, and you'll see them popping an eye open at the slightest sound, or taking time to preen. But generally they're sleeping.

But they also sleep at night! OK, I wasn't expecting this. But I knew Great Horned Owls were more crepuscular than strictly nocturnal. That means they are most active at dawn and dusk. And if you've been watching, they most certainly are most active at dawn and dusk. And they often take a nap after their dusk frolics and feasting! Yep, conked out on a branch dozing around 10:30 PM or so. Who'd have thunk it?

When owls blink their upper lid goes down, just like us. But when they sleep, their lower lid goes up! That's how you can tell when they're sleeping, especially when Rusty is right up to the camera. And they settle their heads down on their shoulders. Sleeping...owl style.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rusty gets clean

Rusty at the nest basket in the cage.

It's been exciting to watch Rusty and Iris and how they interact. They are most active at dawn and dusk, which you would expect from crepuscular birds (the term "crepuscular" means most active at dawn and dusk.)

Sometimes they eat shortly after I feed them in the evening, but last night they waited until this morning to eat. Iris seems to eat first, then Rusty eats. Iris has cached some food (hidden it for later), and I can't say for sure if she goes back to the caches to finish it off. Rusty hasn't cached food that I've seen.

It rained yesterday and for a while Rusty and Iris both sat on the perch that's exposed to the rain. Around 6:30 PM, though, Rusty went in for a full bath, splashing around in the bath pan. Surprisingly, he took ANOTHER bath this morning after he had breakfast! Alice the Great Horned Owl doesn't bathe nearly that much, so I'm curious to see what kind of bathing habits they develop long-term.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Help Observe Rusty and Iris the Owls!

Meet Rusty and Iris, two Great Horned Owls who are both blind in their right eyes. They cannot live in the wild and they seem to really like each other, so they are the perfect owls for my breeding project as part of my vocal study on Great Horned Owls.

They moved in to their permanent home yesterday and already had a visit from the neighbors. Victor, my resident male Great Horned Owl, came by at 10:47 PM and did a bunch of wild hoots and squawks. Rusty didn't say a word, but after a couple of minutes Iris flew over to the side of the cage where Victor was and tentatively gave a quiet and hoarse she hadn't used her hooter for a year. Her second hoot was better, and by the third and fourth things sounded as they should.

The hooting lasted only about five minutes, but Victor was back at 3:45 AM for a few more squawks, but no hoots.

There are three security cameras and microphones located in the breeding cage with Rusty and Iris, and you can view an online stream at

You can help this research by posting a comment to this blog when Rusty, Iris, or the neighbor owls are hooting, chittering, or squawking. Just let me know what you heard and what time you heard it so I can que to that part of the recordings and save it for future reference. Three cameras are recording 24/7, so your help in pinning down the important parts is very appreciated, just like Alan Stankevitz told me about the wild hoots and squawks that happened last night!

Friday, October 15, 2010

The A/V Stuff

Alan Stankevitz works with a security camera while a stuffed Great Horned Owl looks on.

The cages were completed in mid-August, and yes, there's been plenty to do since then. We had to figure out what kind of cameras would work best for our setup and raise money to buy them--neither one a small task!

So a couple of weeks ago the equipment came in to get the breeding cage all wired up and ready to go. Mike from Ace Communications Group came over at 8:30 to put all the ends on all the CAT 5 wires and move my router. Alan Stankevitz came over at 9 AM to start working on installing the cameras.

The feeding tray in the cage made a great work bench, plus there were boxes and tools scattered all over. There were about three ladders in use. Two stuffed owls and a stuffed bear served as owl stand-in models for focusing and other camera adjustments.

Alan has a lifetime subscription to Murphy's Law and even though I don't have a subscription, his kicked in: one of the cameras was defective and no matter how hard he tried, it just pain would not stay in focus. He conceded defeat at 7 PM.

I ordered another camera and today Alan came over again. It installed without any troubles. Hein got the dome infrared illuminator in place. Hardware for the breeding cage done!!

Then Alan came inside to get the rest of things running. He installed the server software for the cameras, then started in on the complicated task of getting an IP camera up and streaming on UStream. (UStream doesn't support IP cameras, so he had to figure out some additional software to make it work.) I'm soooooo glad Alan is a technologically gifted person--computers, cameras, wires, hardware, software, name it, he can figure out how to make it work!

If all goes according to plan, the owls should be released into their new home the end of next week. They've been doing fine and dandy in their temporary home with falconer Erica Broberg in St. Charles, but it'll be FANTASTIC to have them here (and streaming online for the world to watch!)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cage Construction Done and Owls Are Here!

The construction of the owl cages is now complete! Actually, it has been complete for a few weeks. There are a few tiny details to finish out, like putting Astroturf on the feeding platforms and perch braces and adding some stumps on the floor of each cage. We just added a few shrubs in each cage a few days ago, so we'll see how they handle being in the shade in clay soil with little access to direct rain.

The huge excitement, however, is that the owls were shipped down to us this past Monday! The Raptor Education Group needed cage space for some Osprey, so it was time for the owls to move on. Trouble is, I wasn't ready for them yet! The security camera system for monitoring the owls still needed to be installed in the cages, we needed to have a public open house to view the cages, and we needed to organize a special event for all donors, volunteers, the media, the Friends of the Houston Nature Center board, and City Council members when the owls were released into the cages.

Erica Broberg, the falconer who takes care of Alice when I'm gone, agreed to house the owls temporarily for me. Whew!! This photo shows the owls just after they were released into their temporary home at Erica's.

In the meantime, we're having a public open house to view the owl cages tomorrow, September 17, from 1-4 PM. This is the only time we plan to allow viewing by the public since these are breeding owls, not education birds. They are not accustomed to humans, and we'd like to keep it that way. They will be raising young owls that will most likely be released to the wild, and it's important for those young owls to be scared of humans, which they'll learn from Mom and Dad.

We're working with Per Mar Security on the camera system for the cages. They're giving us a discount on the cameras (which no other company was willing to do!), but these are high-end cameras, and the cost for each camera/mike setup is just over $1,200. We need five of them. Plus a computer dedicated to run the system and a switch box. So the crunch has begun to hurry up and raise the necessary funds so this system can be in place before the owls move into their permanent home. So far $2,200 has been raised and more potential donors are being contacted every day. You can make a donation online with the donate button at the bottom of this page, and everyone who donates $100 or more will be invited to the special event where the owls are released into the cages.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Creature Comforts

Hein Bloem admiring the nearly completed breeding cage.

Uff's been several weeks since I last posted! I do, however, have an entirely reasonable explanation for not posting: Hein and I got married August 1!!! So yes, I've been a little tiny bit preoccupied. And plus it's been so hot Laurel and Roger can usually only work half days, but they are still working five days a week with few exceptions.

The outside of the cages is essentially finished, so they've been working on the inside. This includes putting up chain-link fence donated by Phillips Fencing, and putting up 1x3 basswood strips on the walls and ceiling. The interior ceiling will be entirely covered with the basswood strips, spaced about an inch apart. Roughly 50% of the walls will also be covered with vertical basswood strips. This allows airflow but gives privacy.

The chain link allows the owls to see out, but keeps them inside the cages. It also prevents talons from poking holes in the shade cloth and screen on the outside of the cages.

Roger also built a feeding platform just to the left of the entrance door. The platform is on the inside of the cage, but has a small door directly to the outside. This way I can put food on the platform without having to disturb the owls by entering the cages.

The coolest thing about the breeding cage is the nest box (pictured above.) It's about a foot deep and has wire screen on the bottom. We'll fill it up with wood shavings and when the owls start thinking about nesting they'll do a LOT of serious digging and scratching in the shavings. (Hence the need for a metal screen on the bottom so they can't go through it, but yet it provides good drainage.)

There is a small door just above the height of the nest on the north wall. And there's a built in ladder on the outside of the cage so I can climb up there to have direct access to the nest from the outside. This will allow for the removal of eggs for weighing, adding orphaned owlets to the brood if ever necessary, removing sick owlets, or anything else that needs to be done at the nest.

Roger and Laurel are now working on the inside of the release training cage. In the meantime I'm figuring out what shrubs or grasses we'll add on the floors of the cages. Photographer and techie friend Alan Stankevitz is working to see what he can suggest or round up for a security camera system for monitoring the owls. Then the only thing left to do is get the owls!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Working on Walls

The north wall of the cages.

Although it's been really hot and humid lately, Roger and Laurel have been plugging away at the cage walls. They are usually only able to work half days because of the heat, but they are making steady progress.

They needed to put in little two foot wide horizontal crossbars along all the walls, every four vertical feet. This amounted to a LOT of little pieces of 2x4s. Next came brace boards bolted on to bring the weight of the roof down to the concrete footings.

Then they put up screen so the owls will be protected from mosquitoes and West Nile Virus (which is often fatal to Great Horned Owls.) Two kinds of screening went up: shade cloth donated by Houston Hoedown Days and charcoal aluminum screen donated by Phifer Incorporated of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The shade cloth went on the entire north wall plus the sections of the south wall that will be covered with vertical wooded slats. The aluminum screen went on the south wall where there will be chainlink, so the birds can have a better view.

Laurel put on steel sheets two feet high all around the bottom of the cages. This serves to give the birds privacy while they're on the ground and also helps keep the mice IN the cage when the young owls are going to "mouse school" to learn to hunt before being released.

While Laurel worked on the steel skirt, Roger installed showers for the owls. Yes, these owls will have showers over their bath pans! On really hot days I can turn on the shower to encourage the owls to bathe and cool off. This is an especially welcome thing when the owls are molting and itchy and hot and there hasn't been rain for a while.

Putting up the screen was a huge job, but an even bigger job is yet to come: installing the wooden slats and chain link on the inside of the cage walls and ceiling! Hopefully that will start to happen this week!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Roof Is Going On!

Roger Meyer and Charlie Myhre putting on the first sheet of roofing.

Finally good weather!! Temperatures 80 degrees or less and no rain is a great recipe for getting work done on the owl cages. The guys have been able to work full days this week for the most part. (With the nice weather, Laurel has had to bug out a few hours here and there to rake and bale hay.) Roger and Laurel are also being joined by Charlie Myhre from Fountain this week. And thankfully Charlie is as agile as a monkey, so he's the one running around in and amongst the trusses 12 feet up in the air!

So the framing is done, the trusses are up, and the roof may be entirely on by the end of the day today. It's really starting to look like something!

My big "project" was to figure out where the walls should be covered with slats, where they should be solid, and where they should be covered with chain link. I'm not that great at visualizing things on paper so I went out into the cages and walked around, pretending I was a Great Horned Owl. What is the female sitting on the nest going to want to see or not see? What about an owl taking a bath? Where will they want to sit in the sun? How can you give the youngsters in the flight cage a view without them wanting to fly into the wire? Walking around in the cages helped me to figure this out, so I came up with a plan for Roger. Hopefully the owls will agree with my assessment of what they need for mental health, physical health, and for safety. Time will tell!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It's going up!!

WOW!!! The cages are starting to look like cages!! At least the breeding cage, anyway.

Still dodging heavy rains (we got 3" last night and over 2" the day before) and heat and humidity (heat index around 95 or so), Roger and Laurel are working away to put up the frame of the breeding cage. Thankfully Roger had the foresight to make sure the site had good drainage and Tim Nelson had the skills and equipment to make it happen, so the mud isn't hindering them. And it REALLY helps that the gravel was already laid on the floor of the cages, so there is NO mud at all there.

The heat and humidity have been harder to deal with than the rain. The guys have been starting about 8 AM but have to call it quits by 1 or 2 PM. (You can't blame them...they're volunteers and ages 72 and 83!!) But they keep coming every day, and it's starting to look like something fast.

Monday they were joined by Charlie Myhre of Fountain, MN. Charlie is a gopher trapper from Fountain and actually grew up near where I did. We've been doing deals in gophers for a while, and now he's willing to lend a hand on the cages as time allows. He should be back again this week to help speed things along.

My fiance, Hein Bloem, is back in Holland, and has been since May 23. I was skyping with him yesterday when Roger and Laurel came inside for an air conditioned lunch break, so they had a visit with Hein too. Roger assured him that they would make sure to leave some work for him so he couldn't just waltz back into the picture when all was said and done. Hein plans to return about July 14, after his immigration interview at the Consulate in Amsterdam.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Dodging the Rain

Roger and Laurel spend a lot of time on their knees....

It's been raining so much lately it's been hard to make much progress, but Roger and Laurel have been doing everything they can. A couple of days when it DIDN'T rain they pulled CAT 5 wires through sections of PVC pipe to lay in the trench that runs from the cages to the house. Ace Communications Group donated 1500' of CAT 5 wiring and an 8-switch box for the security camera setup we'll be using to monitor the owls. The guys strung three strands of wire plus a pull wire into the tubes, glued the tubes together, and buried it all in the trench. Only one strand of CAT 5 is needed between the cages and house, but built in redundancy is a good thing because you never know what might go wrong! Now that the trenches are all filled in it's going to be a lot easier to mow the lawn.

Tim and Craig Nelson spreading rock on the cage floor.

In between rain showers Tim Nelson and son Craig came back to spread the rock on the cage floor. They did the initial dozer work to level the site, and this time they were moving yards and yards and yards and yards of rock. They spread 2" rock first to help with drainage, then covered it with a good layer of pea gravel. This surface will be good for the bird's feet, plus it's relatively easy to clean. The rock is spread on top of a layer of shade cloth (donated by Houston Hoedown Days) which serves as a weed barrier.

The cool part is about to begin!

There has been sooooooooooooooo much ground work that has gone into this project, but it's not as dramatic as seeing the walls go up. Today they're starting to move lumber from my yard back to the cage site to get things ready to go on Monday. As you can see, it's still a sloppy mess back there. They're trying to work around the mud as much as possible. There's still rain in the forecast, but I've decided that we've had enough rain now and it should dry out instead.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Yes, They're Crazy

Laurel and Roger working in the mud.
Roger is serious about this project and isn't wasting time. He isn't going to let a little (or a lot) of rain put a stop to the work! So he and Laurel have been out working rain or shine. Laurel said last Friday that he grew about six inches thanks to all the mud that caked on the bottom of his boots while they worked. So what have they been doing in the rain? Starting to run CAT 5 wires for the security cameras through PVC pipe that will be buried in the trench to the house. Filling in some of the trenches, and getting the bath pans set up.

Laurel putting the bath pan in place.
The owls need to be able to take baths in their cages, and thanks to Roger, our owls won't just have plain bath pans. They are going to have a "shower area" with a shower head up above a bath pan, so the water can run and the owls can cool themselves on hot days. The tarp and rock will help with drainage in the cage so the ground doesn't get wet and'll run away where it's supposed to.

Roger nailing wire mesh to the 6x6 base.
In order to prevent digging critters from getting into the owl cages, there is 24" of wire mesh buried into the ground around the entire perimeter of the cages. Granted a Great Horned Owl could eat most things that might try to get into the cages, but we don't want any coyotes trying to get in! Roger and Laurel got to this before it rained.

Meet Roger Meyer, the man making this dream come true.
I thought I should include a nice face shot of Roger since I finally got a photo of something other than his backside while he's working!

Meet Laurel Oien, Roger's faithful sidekick in this adventure.
Laurel is a great neighbor. He plows my driveway, hauls things to the dump, fixes the fence to keep the cows out, checks on my house while I'm away, and anything else I need help with. He's also worked with Roger on several other volunteer projects, so it was a natural for him to get in on this big project.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

More Hauling

Caledonia Ready Mix pouring the footings.

The next step in the process was to get 7.5 yards of concrete to fill in the footings for the cages. (Did I mention that these cages are going to be VERY well built and will be around for the long haul???) There was a little extra concrete left at the end, so Roger, always thinking ahead, had a form ready for a little concrete pad where the entrance to the release training cage will be. And there was just the right amount of concrete for the pad when all was said and done.

Laurel and Roger setting the 6x6 bases for the walls.

After the long and HOT holiday weekend the concrete had had plenty of time to set. So Roger and Laurel spent yesterday setting out the 6x6s around the base of the cages and anchoring them to the concrete footings.

Donnie Sylling unloading rock donated by Milestone Materials with J.C. Nerstad's Four Season Maintenance Truck.

While Laurel and Roger worked, the rock was delivered. Milestone Materials donated 12 yards of 2" clean rock to go down on the base of the floor to help with drainage and 27 yards of pea gravel to make up the floor of the cages. Pea gravel can stay relatively clean, can be washed, isn't weedy, and is good for the owls' feet. J.C. Nerstad of Four Season Maintenance loaned a truck for the hauling job, my Dad (Karl Sylling) put fuel in it, and my Dad's cousin Donnie Sylling did the driving. It took five loads to get it all here from Caledonia, so it was an all-day job. But it's here now!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Site Preparation

Tim Nelson leveling the site with his bulldozer.

We all had to be patient and wait for the road bans to go off so work could begin on the cages. Step one was to level the site to provide for adequate drainage, and that involved a bulldozer. Thankfully we had a dry spring so things were dry and the road bans went off several weeks earlier than usual.

Tim Nelson was the man with the machine. He was over at my place with his bulldozer and son to do the job just days after the ban went off. He ripped out lots of small trees that were in the way, put a crown on the future floor of the cages, and left everything just right so the water will flow away from the cages and down into a ditch when it rains. And talk about a great guy--Tim didn't charge a penny for his work!

Steve Hoskins digging the trench.

Next up was the trenching and electrical work. Steve Hoskins of Hoskins Electric was here the second the rain ended. He dug a trench from the cages to the garage so he could run an electrical cable and also trenched to the house so we could bury the cables for the remote cameras and microphone in some conduit. Although the owls themselves don't need the electricity, the security cameras do, as does Roger's cage building equipment!

Besides digging those trenches, Steve also trenched all around the periphery of the cages (mind you one cage is 12x36' and the other is 10x60'.) This trench is necessary so we can put wire mesh two feet down into the ground to prevent digging critters from getting into the owl cages. Thank goodness for Steve's trencher, as it would have taken forever to dig otherwise!!!

Not only was Steve great to get the job done ASAP, he donated all of the trenching work.

The fine folks from Tri-County Electric Cooperative digging the holes for the footings.

Next up was getting the holes dug for the footings. We had one person lined up, but he was having equipment issues. After trying a few other options I called Brian Krambeer, CEO of Tri-County Electric Cooperative. I knew if they had the equipment, they would do the job, as Tri-County installed an artificial Great Horned Owl nest in a tree for me several years ago. (Unfortunately I haven't gotten owls to nest there yet.)

Now THAT'S how to dig holes!!! A huge auger on a big truck and two guys who do this every day. They made short work of a job that would have taken forever and a day with a post hole digger. By the time Tri-County was on the scene I had realized that I had young screech-owls just about to fledge in a nest box in my yard, so I treated the guys to a peek at the two remaining owlets.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Getting Started

The good folks at Badger Corrugating in LaCrosse loading up Laurel's trailer.

My yard now looks like a lumberyard. My dear neighbor Laurel Oien has been Roger's indefatiguable assistant. Roger hauled the steel from Badger Corrugating (half of which was donated) and Laurel hauled two loads of lumber they sold us at cost for the project. Laurel also hauled another load of Quikrete from Badger (again at cost) and we had a bit of an eventful ride home. It seems in an effort to make it easier for us to unload the 60 lb bags by hand, they were loaded in the back of the trailer, behind the wheels. Needless to say 80 bags of this stuff lifted up the hitch a bit, and with it the back end of the pickup. Let's just say there was some serious fishtailing followed by some manual moving of many of the bags to the front of the trailer, and we all arrived safely.

Here Roger Meyer, Laurel Oien and my fiance Hein Bloem unload the trusses by hand.

Then it was off to West Salem to get the trusses from Select Trusses and Lumber, which they sold us at cost. Thankfully it was a totally uneventful trip.

Then there were pallets purchased from a surplus store that Hein Bloem, my fiance, disassembled for the wood. He took apart 10 pallets and it took an hour each, but we got some great (cheap) lumber out of the deal.

Hein patiently taking apart a pallet.

The Great Owl Cage Project

Roger Meyer giving directions to bulldozer operator Tim Nelson.

For two and a half years I've been planning The Great Owl Cage project. The goal is to breed a pair of non-releasable Great Horned Owls and observe them using remote cameras and microphones to learn more about their vocalizations. I've been studying Great Horned Owl vocalizations since 2004 using Alice and my wild neighbor owls as a base along with a few nest observations. But there are some things that are darn near impossible to record in wild owls.

I want to know what kind of behavior (and associated vocalizations) happen in the nest selection process. Who picks the nest? I want to record vocalizations during copulation. I want to record Mom talking to her eggs. I want to record the first sounds an owlet makes while still in an egg. I want to find out how long it takes a young owl to develop its normal territorial hoot and how much practicing is involved. Do Mom and Dad's territorial hoots stay the same over the years? Do the offspring have hoot characteristics inherited from their parents? Much of this can best be learned with captive birds.

So in 2007 I got permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to breed a pair of non-releasable owls. Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, WI came up with the perfect owls for me not long after--a male and a female with eye injuries that prevented their release, but certainly wouldn't prevent them from breeding normally. And even better...the two owls seemed to LIKE each other and get along well. (You can't just plunk two birds in a cage and expect them to breed. They might...but then again they might not like each other!)

The main holdup for the project was finding someone to draw up plans for the cages and come up with a materials list. Oh, and they had to do it as a volunteer.

The first person I lined up got too busy, then his health took a downturn. The next person didn't pan out either. And then finally, after two years, I found the man for the job right under my nose: Roger Meyer.

I knew of Roger's reputation. He's retired and involved in all kinds of volunteer projects from Habitat for Humanity to the maple syrup project at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church to the Houston Community Garden and more. And Roger isn't just "a volunteer" in these projects. He's a mover and a of the main people making things happen. And not just happen...happen at lightening speed. And guess what?? He loves owls, and is a retired builder. Too perfect.

So I met several times with Roger to discuss cage requirements and he drafted plans. Once the material list was done we were off tracking down donations. The Houston Nature Center runs heavily on donations, so I was quite used to this. Roger was no stranger to the game either with all the projects he's been involved in.

To make a long story short, the building market is slow, so businesses didn't have big profits from which to donate. But we were able to line up nearly everything at cost and got some items donated. Plus people were generous with their cash donations. (See the donor and volunteer list on the right...and we're not done yet!)

The last thing I need to track down is security cameras and microphones. I've put in a few calls and e-mails to security companies and manufacturers, but nothing yet. Key word is YET. In case you've got connections, I'm looking for day/night cams with audio and infrared illuminators in outdoor housing that can be streamed onto the internet. Kind of high end stuff! But it's very important, as I want the video to stream online so anyone can watch it anywhere in the world and help make observations.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Removing the Egg

This will just be a quickie since I'm in the middle of the final preparations for our International Festival of Owls March 5-7.

Alice has been dutifully sitting on her egg for 18 days, only getting off for seven minute breaks once or maybe twice a day. Since I wanted to let her incubate as long as possible since that's what her body and mind want, she got to skip two programs this past week. Instead of meeting Alice those groups were treated to video footage of Alice on her nest, eating, drinking, and more.

But Alice needs to attend the owl festival this coming weekend to be inducted into the World Owl Hall of Fame, so I needed to take her egg away before she was finished with a month of sitting on it.

I did that last night when she was off her nest. But when she returned to her nest, she didn't even appear to notice the egg was missing at all and just settled down as usual. About two hours later she started hooting. She was off her egg a few times during the night, and pretty much all day today. She seemed to enjoy being back to looking out the windows, shredding egg cartons, and all of her usual daily activities.

Right after we removed the egg, Hein poked holes in each end and blew out the contents. We thought an egg that had been incubated for 18 days would be raunchy and difficult to blow, but it blew out as easy as a fresh egg and didn't smell at all. (Hein had an egg collection as a child when it was legal to do, so he was the right man for this job!)

We weighed the eggshell and contents and measured the egg itself. Then we looked up typical measurements in the literature. Confirmed: Alice's egg was MONSTROUS!!! I should have weighed it when it was laid and during incubation for better measurements, but still. It's huge! If I didn't lock my door when I'm gone during the day I'd think someone put a goose egg under her.

So anyway, life is returning to normal here, and Alice seems her normal self.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Alice lays an egg!!

All I can say is I wasn't expecting it!

Last January Alice laid the first egg of her life at nearly 12 years of age. But she ate it three days later. So much for that experience.

She starting acting like she was going to lay an egg this year the beginning of January. She sat on her nest 24 hours a day, only getting off to poop and get a drink about once every other day. She stopped eating. I was sure she was going to lay an egg. But after several days of this, she gradually reverted to leaving her nest at night, and she started eating again. Oh well. Hein was here then, so maybe she wasn't quite ready to lay an egg with him around (although she got along with him great!)

Then immediately after Hein left in mid January, Alice started in on the eggy behavior again. Sitting flat on her nest like she was incubating an egg. Not eating. Staying on her nest 24/7. But each time I stuck my hand under her to feel for an egg, all I felt was her feathered toes.

Throughout all of this she hooted with me a lot and wanted to "copulate" a lot. The male owl would normally fly in and land on the female's back to do the deed, so for Alice "copulation" means me putting my hand on her back and nuzzling her neck with my nose. It's kind of nice that I can actually touch her like this, because I can't the rest of the year.

Since she wasn't laying an egg, I decided her "maternity leave" from work was over. The City Maintenance guys had built her a cool new perch in the nature center office, complete with its own poop catcher. So I brought Alice in to work last Saturday.

She was soooooo uncomfortable. I don't think it was the perch, but she just didn't want to be away from her nest. She pooped a lot (which she only does at work when she's scared or nervous), she stood on both feet the whole time (she tucks a foot up when she's comfortable), and she didn't sleep a wink (she normally dozes all day.) And when we got home she went straight upstairs and sat on her nest.

And then she started being nesty again. I didn't think a thing of it. Wednesday morning when I went to work she was squatting in her nest instead of sitting. I thought maybe she was going to get past the nesty thing. But when I came home she was flattened out on her nest in her incubation posture. I still wasn't surprised, but I stuck my hand under her just to check anyway.

I felt around, but what I felt didn't feel like toes! I had to part her feathers to confirm that yes indeed, my dear Alice had laid an egg!

I think it's bigger than last year's egg, and a bright white. She sat on it straight through until this morning when she got off at 6:30 AM to get a drink and poop. (WOW did that poop STINK after holding it for two days!!!) After being off for no more than 5-10 minutes, she was back on her egg. A devoted Mom.

This time she's changing position a lot when she incubates. Sometimes she faces to the back, sometimes to the side, sometimes kitty corner. She never did that before. And now she hisses at me whenever I enter the room. She chitters a greeting first, but then she's telling me to leaver her alone with some hissing.

She always sits low in the nest. No wonder it's so hard to see wild owls when they're incubating. All you'd ever see are ear tufts.

I half expected a second egg to arrive today, but nope, there's still only one. I'll keep you posted when something of note happens. But watching an owl incubate eggs can be incredibly unexciting.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A New Man in Our Life

Alice getting attention from Hein first thing in the morning.

Let's face it. If you're single and have a Great Horned Owl who thinks you're her mate living in your house, dating becomes quite interesting. And the number of interested men is severely limited from the get go.

I met Hein Bloem in Holland in 2007. He was one of the organizers of the World Owl Conference, and I went to present a paper on Great Horned Owl vocalizations. I met him as soon as I walked into the hotel and felt like I had known him forever from the get-go. Then he came to the International Festival of Owls I coordinate in 2008, and we got along magnificently. So after my marriage ended shortly thereafter, we gave things a try and were very happy together.

Alice, however, didn't like being ignored and tried to pounce on his feet at least once or twice. But with 4,000+ miles between us, we most certainly didn't see much of each other, and although we were the best of friends and loved each other dearly, the relationship ended.

So I started seeing someone who lived just a little bit closer. Like one mile down the road.

Alice wasn't overjoyed with this situation either. At least three times she came downstairs to pounce on his feet. But over the course of several months she seemed to more or less get used to his presence. But he was pretty ambivalent about owls (how is that even possible???), and he wasn't looking for a serious relationship. In the meantime, my dear Dutchman had decided he was going to make our relationship work no matter how many times I told him no.

To make a long story short, I ended things with my neighbor and got back together with Hein. He spent a month here from the middle of December to the middle of January. This time we knew things would work out for us, but I was unsure of what Alice would think of the whole situation.

So crazy as it sounds, I spent lots of time talking to Alice, telling her Hein was coming, and that he was a good man. And when Hein and I would Skype, Alice often joined in. She hooted and Hein hooted back. It was a good thing.

When Hein arrived, he had the perfect mixture of respect and appreciation for Alice. He gave her her space at first, hooted with her, and just spent time with her (hours on end scrubbing the floor of her room!) Eventually he was able to put his forehead to her forehead to hoot with her.

I had no idea how close their bond was becoming until one evening when Alice was hooting on the hall railing. Hein leaned down and put his elbows on the railing, and Alice ran into his arms to be cuddled!! No joke.

A. Alice doesn't run to anyone for attention. B. Owls don't particularly like to be cuddled. But Alice did it. No less than three times (it might have been more.)

Like Hein says, all women like attention (feathered or not.) He's right. And we think he's the right man for us.

England Again!

Me with Chocolate the European Eagle Owl during "Meet the Birds" (photo by Trystan Williams)

Wow, it's been ridiculously long since I last posted. A lot has been happening in my life as well as Alice's! So I'll begin to start catching up on my sorely belated posting.
I spent the second half of October in England as part of my Bush Leadership Fellowship. I stayed with Tony Warburton (founder of the World Owl Trust) and his partner Jenny Thurston. The goal of my trip was to see a variety of owl centers, from good to bad, to give me some very clear ideas of what I do and don't want to do when I create a North American Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota.

Tony put a lot of thought and effort into crafting my itinerary, and when all was said and done I had traveled about 1,000 miles. But wow, was it worth it!! I got all kinds of great ideas, talked to phenomenal and passionate people, and had great discussions about it all with Tony.

While I was there I visited Furness Owls, Yorkshire Dales Falconry Centre, the Hawk Conservancy Trust, the International Centre for Birds of Prey, and Dave Bellis (the best private owl breeder in the UK.) But I spent the most time at the World Owl Centre...the facility Tony started.

The World Owl Centre is located at Muncaster Castle in Ravenglass in the Lake District. It is phenomenally beautiful there, between the castle and the grounds. Throw in the owl centre and it's like I was in heaven.

I was lucky enough to spend two days working with the keepers there (Wulf, Michelle, Trystan and Vicky), learning how they care for the owls, observing (and even getting to participate in!) the daily Meet the Birds program, asking them all kinds of questions about Great Horned Owl behavior and vocalizations (they breed South American Horned Owls there, so this was awesome from my perspective of conducting a vocal study on the species!), and more.

I spent time with their Conservation Officer, Hilary Lang. While I was out with her she checked on some Barn Owls at a mining museum along the sea and in a farmer's barn. It was interesting to see how the people there all seem to be so interested in helping owls!

I also spent a lot of time on the road with David Armitage, the Collection Manager. He was the one who did all the driving to all the other facilities I visited. I do have to say it's a whole different ballgame in England since you can buy, sell and trade owls there. And since the owls are captive reared, it's much easier to train them to fly for audiences. It gave me lots to think about.

I can't even begin to give details on this whole trip or I'd find myself writing a book. Suffice it to say it was a trip of a lifetime (although I think this is the third time I've had a "trip of a lifetime!") I owe an ENORMOUS thanks to Tony for arranging this all and for graciously and generously hosting me in his home the whole time (and thanks to Jenny too!!)