An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Owls

The Feathered Feet of Northern Owls

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Most owls have feathered legs, but the feet and toes of some owls, especially those living in colder, higher latitudes, are also densely feathered. The feathers keep the feet of these birds warm, allowing them to hunt where snow is on the ground and temperatures are very low. Great Gray Owls (pictured), Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk Owls are all examples of this phenomenon. Owls living in warmer climes, such as Barn Owls, have sparsely feathered feet and toes, and tropical owls have nearly featherless feet. This variation can also be found within a given species that has a range that extends over many degrees of latitude, such as the Barred Owl.

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Rare Winter Visitors – Great Gray Owls

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Great Gray Owls are impressive birds – at 27” in length, they are our largest owl (Great Horned Owl – 22”, Snowy – 23”) but at 2.4 pounds, not our heaviest (Great Horned Owl – 3.1 pounds, Snowy – 4 pounds). The feathers that make a Great Gray Owl look so massive are what keep it warm during winters in the northern boreal forests where it resides.

Most of a Great Gray Owl’s diet consists of rodents, and some winters, when prey is scarce, individuals wander south to southern Canada and northern U.S. to sustain themselves. Sometimes Great Gray Owls are highly irruptive, and the number of sightings in the Northeast is high. In the winter of 1978-79 there were over 150 sightings in New England and Quebec. While there were numerous sightings in southern Canada this winter, northern New England was visited by only a few individuals, including the one pictured (in central New Hampshire).

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Snow Conditions Making Life Challenging For Barred Owls

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There has been an unusually high number of Barred Owl sightings reported in northern New England and New York this winter, primarily from the road and near bird feeders. This phenomenon, particularly with owls, is usually attributed to either a current lack of food or an abundance of food during the most recent breeding season resulting in a dramatic increase in the owl population.

In the case of Barred Owls, it is the former. Unlike Snowy Owls, which vary the size of their clutch depending on food availability, Barred Owls typically have two young, regardless of the size of the rodent population. Thus, a plethora of progeny can be eliminated as a viable explanation for the abundance of Barred Owl sightings this winter, which leaves a scarcity of food as the primary reason.

For several weeks there has been a thick crust on top of the snow, which makes hunting for mice and voles difficult for raptors. Because they are very territorial, Barred Owls rarely wander outside of their territory, even when food is scarce. Thus, especially in the past few weeks, they have been desperate to find small rodents. Roads are one reliable spot where mice, voles and shrews are exposed, and bird feeders are most definitely rodent magnets. Hopefully weather conditions will allow birds of prey access to the subnivean layer (space next to the ground where small rodents travel, shelter and breed) before too many more Barred Owls starve to death. (Source: Joan Collins, NYS Ornithological Association, UV-BIRDERS List) (Photo:  Barred Owl with recent Northern Red-backed Vole catch.)

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Modern Technology Reveals Snowy Owl Winter Behavior

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With the arrival of this winter’s first Snowy Owls in New England comes a renewed interest in the winter ecology of these birds of prey. An organization called Project Snowstorm (www.projectsnowstorm.org ) gathers detailed information every 30 seconds on the movement of Snowy Owls that they have outfitted with a backpack harness containing a solar transmitter. These transmitters use the cellular phone network, not a satellite, and when they are out of range of a cell tower, they store information which is transmitted when the bird is back within cell coverage territory – even if it’s years later.

The information that has been gleaned from this modern technology is stunning, and has allowed us to know far more about the behavior of Snowy Owls in winter. Some Snowy Owls stay within a quarter mile of where they are banded; others cover hundreds of miles within a few weeks. Some Snowy Owls spend much of the winter out on the frozen Great Lakes, where they prey on waterfowl they find in the cracks in the ice that open and close repeatedly.   Not only has it been confirmed that Snowy Owls feed heavily on birds in the winter (especially ducks, geese, grebes and gulls), but their use of channel markers and buoys as hunting perches while they seek prey over the open ocean at night has been documented.

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How Owls Locate Prey Under the Snow

1-26-16  barred owl imprint  067An owl’s range of audible sounds is not unlike that of humans, but an owl’s hearing is much more acute at certain frequencies, enabling it to hear even the slightest movement of their prey under two feet of snow. When a noise is heard, the owl is able to tell its direction because of the minute time difference in which the sound is perceived in the left and right ear. If the sound is to the left of the owl, the left ear hears it before the right ear. The owl turns its head so the sound arrives at both ears simultaneously, at which point it knows its prey is right in front of it. Owls can detect a left/right time difference of about 0.00003 seconds.

Once an owl has determined the direction of its next victim, it flies towards it, keeping its head in line with the direction of the last sound the prey made. If the prey moves, the owl makes corrections mid-flight. When about two feet from the prey, the owl brings its feet forward and spread its talons, and just before striking, thrusts its legs out in front of its face and often close its eyes before the kill. (Photo: barred owl wings and feet imprints; inset: barred owl ear opening.)

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Great Horned Owls Courting

Great Horned Owls are staking out territories and beginning courtship rituals in northern New England. Their “songs” are typically given with their beak closed, as they lean forward and cock their tail up (see photo). When calling, their white throat feathers are pronounced as their throat swells.

The hooting of a Great Horned Owl can be compared to the sound of a distant foghorn – it is soft, and somewhat subdued, with no strong accent on any one hoot. Pairs often synchronize their deep sonorous territorial songs, a custom which is referred to as “duetting.” The higher-pitched female calls a six or seven-note song and the male responds with a deeper five-note song during or within a few seconds after the female’s song.  The chances of hearing a Great Horned Owl are somewhat greater after midnight than before. To hear Great Horned Owl territorial calls and duetting go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/sounds. (Thanks to Vermont Institute of Natural Science for photo op.)

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Great Horned Owl Fledglings Still Being Fed By Parents

great horned owls-first year IMG_1616Great 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 are ten or twelve weeks old, the fledglings follow their parents around and continue to be fed and cared for by their parents until fall. In late summer, when they have fledged but are still begging their parents for food, you can hear their distinctive calls. To know what to listen for, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/great-horned_owl.mp3 (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org.)

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