Last week I got all wrapped up in thinking about Owls. They have always been favorites of my family, though I am not sure why. Was it their quiet manner, those glaring eyes, or just something sort of mysterious about them? They are beautiful birds and range in size from a Great Horned Owl (24 inches) to a Saw-whet Owl that only grows to about 6-8 inches. This renewed interest started when I came upon a large assortment of feathers that I thought were from a Great Horned Owl. As I picked up those velvety feathers, guestions began to come to my head. What would kill such a large, formidable owl? Ironically, I had found these feathers in almost the exact same spot a year ago. What is going on here? I later learned that there aren't too many animals that prey on this owl, in fact they may attack each other in territorial disputes. Occasionally a Northern Goshawk may go after this bird, and a Peregrine Falcon also.

As I continued to ponder the habits of the Great Horned Owl, I headed back as it was getting dark. I walked the beach to find my car and bumped into a friend who told me he had a small dead bird and wondered if I would be interested in seeing it. Guess what? It was another owl, but this time our smallest owl, the Saw-whet. Needless to say, I took him up on the offer and found where the bird had been left. Since then, I have been sharing the rare opportunity of seeing an owl up close and personal, and comparing the habits of these birds.

As I accumulated information about these birds, I shared my discoveries with kids at the Phippsburg School where I have been helping with water quality testing. We decided to do a video talking about what we had learned, so now you know what has absorbed my time. It was great fun, and in the process I learned more things about these birds. One of the things I had not known was the fact that these small Saw-whet owls may catch as many as 6 mice in an outing and then cache them for later consumption. To thaw them, they sit on them as if they were incubating an egg! The Great Horned Owl may also do this.

We also talked about their velvety feathers that enable them to have silent flight; their well developed eyesight comparable to a cat's; and their ears that are asymmetrically positioned for catching sound waves. Their eyes do not move in their sockets, but their necks can turn their heads 270 degrees. These are nocturnal predators so all of these features enable them to capture their food at night. For a Saw-whet, it is small mammals that they seek; for a Great Horned Owl it can be anything from a Snowshoe Hare to a skunk, another bird or amphibian.

All I can say is that I learn something new everyday when I am out on the trails.......a bird thaws its prey by sitting on it? Did you know that the Great Horned Owl has very few worries about predators other than its own kind? Or that owls' ears are placed asymmetrically in their skulls? Wow.

The weather has been variable with thawing, more snow, and then rain. Now we are in a cold snap. The stresses of our native animals must be consuming in their struggle to survive. Fortunately, neither the Great Horned or the Saw-whet owl is endangered. Their numbers remain consistent. Having said these things, I read this morning in the Portland Press Herald about the recent mortality of Barred Owls. The unusual weather has forced many of these owls to come south to Maine. Here, many of our woodlands are snow covered, and they are hunting their prey on plowed roads causing their injury or demise. Owls lack peripheral vision and set their eyes focusing on capturing food. They may not see a car approaching as they hone in on a mouse crossing a road. Those bought to rehabilitators often survive damage to their wings. Recovery is sometimes assured by affixing feathers (with epoxy) from dead birds where they are needed, or even releasing birds with splints on their wings! Both splints and glued feathers are eliminated as these birds molt their feathers. The article also cited an instance where a Great Horned Owl succumbed when it was pierced with quills from a porcupine. 1/20/08 Ronnie on the pr-owl.