An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Birds of Prey

Bald Eagles Nesting

4-9-15  bald eagle and nest 069In the Northeast, Bald Eagles seek out the tallest trees around in which to build their nests. In certain locations in Alaska, coastal California and northern Canada where there are no trees, Bald Eagles will nest on the ground. When building a nest in a tree, eagles will usually build it in the top quarter of the tree, just below the crown, on limbs capable of supporting a large nest. Sticks from the ground are collected up to a mile away from the nest or are broken off of nearby trees. Additional materials are regularly added to the nest throughout the year, including daily additions during the breeding season (see photo).

Many live eagle cams can be found online (in Minnesota, one chick, one egg – http://mnbound.com/live-eagle-cam/ ; in Georgia, older nestlings: http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/ ; in Pennsylvania, very young chicks: http://www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles ), giving the viewer a window into the incubation, birth and growth of these raptors. Depending on the location of the nest, one can see every stage of development, from eggs to hatchlings to all-but-fledged nestlings. In New England, eggs are soon to hatch, if they haven’t already. (Thanks to Marianne Blake for photo op.)

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Great Horned Owls Incubating Eggs

4-1-15 GHO2  240Great Horned Owls are said to have the widest range of nest sites of any bird in North or South America. Like other owls and falcons, this raptor does not build its own nest, but rather relies heavily on abandoned stick nests of diurnal birds of prey. Red-tailed Hawk nests are often usurped, as well as those of Bald Eagles, crows, ravens and herons. Nests may be lined with shreds of bark, leaves, downy feathers from the owl’s breast, fur of prey and trampled pellets. In addition to bird nests, Great Horned Owls also raise their one to four nestlings (usually two) in tree cavities and snags, on cliffs, in deserted buildings, in squirrel nests and even on the ground.

The female Great Horned Owl does all the incubating; the male delivers prey to her at intervals throughout the night. These early nesters have incubated eggs successfully when outside temperatures have been as low as -27°F. Hopefully warmer temperatures will welcome the newly hatched owlets in about a month. (photo: mostly hidden Great Horned Owl in Great Blue Heron nest)

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Owls & Humans Share Trait

barred owl 194Birds have three eyelids – an upper eyelid, lower eyelid and a third semitransparent membrane called a nictitating membrane that sweeps across the eye much like a windshield wiper. This membrane keeps their eyes moist, and protects their corneas from being scratched.

In most birds, including owls, the upper and lower eyelids are used to close the eyes when sleeping, and the nictitating membrane is used for blinking. Humans close their eyes mainly by lowering the upper eyelid, where most birds do so by raising the lower lid. Owls (and a few other birds such as parrots, toucans, wrens and ostriches) are more human-like in that their upper lids are usually lowered to close their eyes. Owls also usually close their eyes, partly or entirely, when capturing and transferring prey, scratching their face, preening another owl and copulating. (Note the rows of feathers on this barred owl’s upper eyelids.)

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Patient (and Hungry) Barred Owls Visit Feeders

3-12-15 barred owl 152Barred owls are nothing if not resourceful when it comes to methods for finding food. Typically they sit on a high branch and scan the area for prey before dropping down to capture small mammals such as mice, squirrels as well as reptiles and amphibians. During summer months, they have been seen perched over water and swooping down to capture fish, as well as wading in shallow water to hunt for crayfish and fish. Barred owls have even been seen running along the ground and pouncing on amphibians.

Even with a myriad of hunting techniques, however, barred owls have had a hard time this winter, due to the depth of the snow (harder to hear and reach prey) and the time it is taking for it to melt. Small mammals, which compose the bulk of their diet, remain well hidden. Reports of barred owls perched patiently waiting and watching on or near bird feeders for unsuspecting rodents to expose themselves have become commonplace. Mice and voles that come out from under the snow to feed on spilled seed during the night are a life-saving source of food for these stressed birds. Warmer weather will hopefully soon improve hunting conditions for barred owls. Their gain will be our loss, for once again, as it should be, a sighting will become a far more rare occurrence. (Thanks to Emily and Joe Silver for photo op.)

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Barred Owls Courting

2-11 barred owl 057Barred Owls call year-round but their vocalizations increase and expand in February when courtship begins. No longer are their calls limited to their year-round “who-cooks-for-you — who-cooks-for-you-all.” Males and females engage in “duets,” as well as many other vocalizations, including cackles, hoots, caws and gurgles. Those who sleep with open windows may feel like they are in the middle of a jungle inhabited by hundreds of raucous monkeys.

Barred Owl courtship is not strictly vocal. Male Barred Owls display by swaying back and forth and raising their wings, while sidling along a branch in close proximity to a female. Courtship feeding and mutual preening also occur prior to copulation. The nights of February are filled with amorous avian calls and gestures.

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Great Horned Owls Courting

1-22-15  great horned owl IMG_5973The intense hooting of Great Horned Owls begins in late December or early January, about a month before actual mating takes place. Males call during most seasons of the year, but the period when the males are hooting vigorously lasts for a month or six weeks. During the mating season the deep, rich tones of the males are occasionally interspersed with the higher and huskier notes of the females. The answering calls of the females are heard for only a week or two, toward the end of the six-week period.

Eventually, when a male and female approach each other, they do a sort of courtship “dance.” The male cocks his tail, swells his white bib (see photo), and with much bobbing and jerking utters a series of deep sonorous calls that elicit calling responses by the female. He cautiously approaches the female, continuing much tail-bobbing and posturing. The owls nod, bow, and spread their wings as well as shake their heads. Courting pairs have been observed engaging in high-pitched giggling, screaming, and bill-snapping. Mutual bill rubbing and preening also occurs. Copulation concludes the courtship ritual, with both owls hooting at a rate of 4 or 5 hoots per second throughout copulation, which lasts 4 – 7 seconds. (Photo: Great Horned Owl, in captivity)

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Owl Night Vision

1-5-15  barn owlIMG_6003Like humans, birds have a sensitive retina in the back of their eyes that absorbs incoming light, senses it, integrates the information in it, and sends this information on to their brain. An avian retina is much thicker than ours and contains more rod cells (for dim light vision) and cone cells (for acuity and color vision).

As most owls are active at night, their eyes must be very efficient at collecting and processing light. The eyes of owls are disproportionately large compared to the size of their skull, and enable them to collect as much light as possible. In addition, the retina of an owl’s eye has an abundance of light-sensitive rod cells — owls have almost a million rods per square millimeter compared to humans which have only about 200,000. Barn owls can see a mouse at 6 – 7 feet with an illumination of .00000073 foot-candles – the equivalent of humans seeing a mouse by the light of a match a mile away. Eye size, an abundance of rod cells and additional neural mechanisms provide owls with vision greater than that of most of their prey.

Since owls have extraordinary night vision, it is often thought that they are blind in strong light. This is not true, because their pupils have a wide range of adjustment, allowing the right amount of light to strike the retina. Some species of owls can actually see better than humans in bright light. (Photo: barn owl, in captivity)

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