More Owl Stories | The JOLT News Organization, A Washington Nonprofit Organization

More Owl Stories | The JOLT News Organization, A Washington Nonprofit Organization

By George Walter

Writing about owls in a recent column reminded me of the day I met our photographer, Liam Hutcheson. It was Olympia’s Christmas Bird Count five years ago. Promptly at 7:30 a.m., ten-year-old Liam was at my door, accompanied by his mother Elizabeth and his camera with a long lens. Others came and we were divided into counting groups. In the late afternoon, Liam, Elizabeth and I were entering good habitat sites in the hope of following a few more birds for the count.

We were walking along the edge of a wooded area when Liam suggested trying a Restricted call. “Try it,” I replied, thinking to encourage the young man. Liam let out a loud and precise Barred Owl call. I was impressed. And I wasn’t the only one; A nearby Barred Owl immediately responded. The smile on Liam’s face was unforgettable.

Our two large, solitary, great horned owls are large birds and large predators. Therefore, they need and command a large hunting territory, usually living alone or in territorial pairs. They claim and defend their territory loudly with shots and sometimes even attacks. Liam had issued a challenge to the resident Barred Owl and received an immediate response. If we had stayed and kept shooting, that owl would likely have come closer.

For entertainment during the long winter nights, we humans have taken advantage of this territorial response for generations. This habit is wonderfully commemorated in the 1987 children’s book, Owl Moon, written by Jane Yolen. It tells the story of a young girl who is finally old enough to go out with her boyfriend on a full moon winter night. In this story, the respondent is a great horned owl. It is a beautiful book, worth reading even if there are no children around. Some readings with illustrations are available on YouTube.

Barn owl

All other Thurston County owls tend to keep a low profile compared to the Great Horned and Barred. This is because they are smaller and more likely prey! They usually do not fly until it is completely dark and rarely vocalize loudly. But they are quite common and not more than that Barn owl. This is a medium-sized owl with an oval white face and body, with a tan and gray back and wings. Barn owls hunt on the wing, gliding over fields and open areas, searching for small rodents. When seen flying at night, they can appear all white and “ghostly”.

They nest in cavities, and for centuries farmers have kept the top windows in barns open, both for ventilation and to encourage barn owls to take up residence as a control against vermin that also like the barn’s shelter and food supply. Barn Owls at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge have perhaps a dozen or more Barn Owls in residence, but they are rarely seen because of their strict nocturnal habits.

However, the Owl’s nest is not limited to barns. When you walk along Puget Sound beaches, have you noticed cavities, some of them quite large, in the sand and clay cliffs? Several species of birds nest in these cavities and, occasionally, Barn Owls will acquire one. No owl actually builds a nest; all use cavities or nests made by other species.

Owls have interesting “table manners”. They swallow small prey whole and therefore, their digestive system has to deal somewhat with indigestible bones, fur and feathers. Their throat makes a division before digesting these parts; then they form into a round mass (or pellet) and are regurgitated. All owls (and some other birds) do this, but Barn Owls are especially notorious for it because their pellets pile up on the barn floor. There’s a good chance you’ve seen and handled an owl pellet since dissecting them and identifying prey is a common school science project.

Snowy owl

Some Nisqually Indian fishermen set their nets far out at the mouth of the Nisqually River, and the unofficial mascot of these fishermen is “White Buck”. This owl stands at the extreme edge of the delta and they expect to see it every winter. When it is absent, as it has been for several years, I am asked, “Where is our owl?”

This is Snowy owl, a very large white owl, often with black feather tips. They breed in high arctic areas, feasting on lemmings and other prey that are active during the short arctic summer. Some years of breeding there is an abundance, and many young, and other years not so much. Winter food supplies can also vary. These food variability affects migration, and some years many snowy owls fly south into the northern tier of states, including Washington, in search of food.

The ornithologist’s term for these cyclical high points “bursts” and during these years we can see many snowy owls. These owls prefer coastal areas because open flat areas are their typical hunting grounds. But sometimes they happen far from the coast. One year I saw a snowy owl in the open field fields along Yelm Highway southeast of Lacey. During blast winters, any white object in an open field is worth looking at. Maybe it will be a lost plastic bag, but it could just be the Snowy Owl visiting from the far north.

George Walter is environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s department of natural resources; he also has an interest of over 40 years in bird watching. He can be reached at [email protected]

Photos for this column were provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia-area birder and avid photographer.

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