It’s well known that owls have an acute sense of hearing — some species, such as the barn owl, hunt nocturnally by sound alone. An owl’s asymmetrically-placed ears are located beneath the feathers at the edge of its facial discs. This placement, along with the shape of the external ear canals, is thought to contribute to an owl’s keen ability to locate sound. The flesh-colored fold of skin that you see in front of this barred owl’s ear is movable, and reflects and concentrates sound waves coming from behind the bird.
Roughly six to ten hours after consuming prey, owls, hawks and many other birds cough up a small pellet that consists of the indigestible bones, fur, etc. of the prey it’s eaten. The barred owl in this photograph was in the process of coughing up such a pellet. While pellets are hard to come by (they are well camouflaged on the forest floor), owls caught in the act of producing them are even more rare!
Hardy birds that they are, Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesting birds — you can find them on nests in January, February and March, even in northern New England. Eggs are incubated for about a month, typically in March or April with young usually hatching in May or June. The nestlings remain in the nest for six or seven weeks before fledging. Unable to fly until they’re ten or twelve weeks old, the fledglings follow their parents around and continue to be fed and cared for by them until the fall. These two fledglings were sticking close together as they made their raspy begging calls from high in a white pine. Both their calls and the down that was visible on their heads told me that they were this year’s young.
Although you would think that no predator would think of preying on, much less eating, a striped skunk, there are a few mammals, including coyotes, foxes and bobcats, that do just that, but only if they are in danger of starving. One predator that routinely dines on skunks is the great horned owl. One summer night I made out the silhouette of an owl flying in my direction, and as it flew by me its identity was confirmed by the skunk-like odor that accompanied it.
There are two subjects in this photograph – one is dark and round (left) and the other is whitish-yellow and brown, and string-like (right). One came out of a barred owl’s mouth; the other came out the opposite end. Do you know which is which? The round, brown object is an owl pellet which owls (and many other birds) cough up roughly 6 – 10 hours after consuming a meal. It is just about odorless, and consists of the indigestible parts of the owl’s prey — bones, teeth and nails wrapped in the fur of, in this case, a vole. (The fur keeps sharp bones from tearing the owl’s esophagus when the pellet is coughed up.) Different owl species have different sized pellets, and typically the larger the owl, the larger the pellet. (The average barred owl pellet is 2 ½” long and 1” wide.) A great gray owl pellet (3”-4” long and 1 ½” wide) I found contained the skulls of three small rodents, in addition to other bones. The whitish substance is the owl’s semi-solid waste. It consists of white uric acid and feces which are excreted through the bird’s cloaca, an opening that is used not only for waste disposal, but also for mating and egg laying.
One night this week I became aware of a series of whistled “toots,” all the same pitch, coming from the adjacent woods. This far-reaching, distinctive call comes from a surprisingly small owl, the Northern Saw-whet — one of our most common owls, whose common name comes from the “skiew” call that is made when it is alarmed. This sound has a resemblance to the whetting of a saw. Although a Saw-whet only weighs about as much as a robin, you would never know it from the volume and carrying power (over 300 yards) of its call. Typically the male calls only during the mating season, in an attempt to attract a female with whom it will mate. The female then selects the nesting cavity, typically a Northern Flicker or Pileated Woodpecker hole, usually in March or April. This pint-sized raptor (weighing less than 3 ounces, and measuring 8 inches in length) feeds mainly on deer mice. Unlike most owls, it does not swallow the mouse whole, but rather tears it in half, leaving the second half for another meal.