Owl encounters

hoots in the woods, and talons in the nets

Owls are fascinating creatures and I’ve long found them a special sort of bird. But not being a nocturnal animal myself (dare I say not a ‘night owl’??), I’ve never been involved in research on owls. Nevertheless, there have been a few amusing encounters with them. Here are three:

When I first came to Juneau, over twenty-five years ago, I happened to be out somewhere near Herbert River, and I heard the so-distinctive call of a barred owl. Having often heard their ‘who cooks for you’ back in the Midwest, I was certain that this was the familiar call. I mentioned this to another naturalist. And shortly thereafter, several local bird-watchers went out there to find it for themselves. I couldn’t help wondering if they doubted my capacity to recognize this call—what could a newbie in town be expected to know!? (Of course, there was a lot I didn’t know and had to learn about the local fauna, but this wasn’t in that category.) It turned out that a barred owl was rather unusual for Juneau.

Long ago, back in the Midwest, I often operated a set of mist-nets to capture (and release) songbirds, as a means of recording their patterns of abundance by season and habitat. For the uninitiated: mist-nets are made of fine, black nylon mesh and are very hard for a bird to notice, so they can get caught as they flit about. My nets were twelve meters long and two meters high, and I commonly operated a set of six or more nets at a time, checking them frequently to record and release the captives. One day, I found a tiny owl in a net–a beautiful little thing and easy to remove from the net. It didn’t bite or dig in with its talons (unlike cardinals, which love to grab the tender edge near a fingernail, and unlike the owl that is the hero of the next paragraph). This was a saw-whet owl, the first I’d even seen. It was totally calm and serene all through the brief handling process and, when I set it on a fence post to let it fly free, it just sat there, gazing at me, as if to say Well, that was interesting; now what? It didn’t fly away until I left the area. Neat bird!

For many years, I studied birds in the south temperate rainforest in Chile. And, again as part of a bird-census program, we often operated a set of mist-nets, catching lots of small birds. One day we found a southern pygmy owl, one of the few day-active owls, tangled in the mesh of the net—right next to a small songbird. The proximity was not an accident—the owl had tried to capture the trapped songbird. This owl was harder to disentangle than the little saw-whet had been and by the time I had it out of the net, it had dug its talons deep into my hand. But of course, we wanted to photograph it, so I held the fierce little thing—and it held me, rather bloodily. When I released it, the tough predator flew straight into the next net after another songbird. Not easily deterred, that one!

Now that I’ve mentioned pygmy owls, let me note something else that’s interesting about them. Pygmy owls (genus Glaucidium) range from southeast Alaska down to Chile and Argentina. Along the way, their populations have differentiated genetically. For instance, there are thought to be possibly eight (!) distinct species in Mexico and Central America (plus more in South America). They differ in color of plumage and song, as well as habitat and elevation. Perhaps instructively– the diversity of screech owls in this region is also very high: nine distinct types plus two from the U. S. that just reach into northern Mexico. The high diversity of pygmy owls and of screech owls makes me wonder if the strong topographic relief in the region, with elevational and habitat variety, may have led to isolation of populations, reducing genetic interchange, and thus allowing each population to evolve independently and in slightly different ways. Larger owls have not differentiated so greatly over that area, for some unknown reason, but it is interesting to contemplate and conjecture.

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