The Wonderful World of Owls: Part II

In my last blog post, I wrote about owls that live underground and Snowy Owl chicks that grow faster than the national debt. Now I’m ready to reveal the world of ghost owls and talk about how young owls can climb trees. As usual, there will be no puns or ridiculous stories in this post.

Barn owl in flight at night

Barn Owl aka “Ghost Owl”

Barn Owls are sometimes known by the nickname “Ghost Owls” due to their white coloration, their nocturnal nature, and their raspy screeching. Barn Owls get their name from their tendency to hang out with nobles at large chain bookstores in barns. They are found almost worldwide, though they are in decline in some regions. Barn Owls stand around a foot high and generally weigh a little over a pound. These owls have excellent hearing, as their heart-shaped facial disk helps funnel sound toward their asymmetrical ears, creating a parabola effect which amplifies sound waves. Lab experiments have revealed that Barn Owls are capable of finding prey in total darkness! They are also great at controlling pests like mice and rats, as they often prey upon small mammals. Like other owls, they swallow prey whole and cast up pellets of indigestible parts, such as bones. Their call is a raspy screech and they sometimes produce low chittering noises. To be honest, we should probably name them screech owls, as the calls of actual screech owls sound quite pleasant.

Barn owl

Barn owl with prey

In my experiences working with Barn Owls up close, I’ve seen that they are wonderful fliers with beautiful buffy brown and white wings. The babies on the other hand, are balls of fluff with gray faces. I’m currently helping to raise a baby barn owl and two young barn owls that were born at the World Bird Sanctuary. The two youngsters are actually different races – Orion is American and Whisper is European. Orion is noisy and boisterous, often climbing around his enclosure, while Whisper is quieter and well-behaved. The baby is growing up fast and her feathers will soon start filling in.

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Orion and Whisper looking out the window.

So can young owls really climb trees? Yes they can! Owls that are not yet ready to fly need a mechanism to escape danger from the ground. Some young owls are able to spread out their wings and use their beak and talons to climb up trees! Check out this news article that includes pictures of a young Great Horned Owl that climbed up a tree after falling from its nest. You can also search for climbing owl on Youtube and see some short videos of owls in action! Below is a Barn Owl that decided to shimmy up a tree.

Juvenile barn owl climbing up tree using wings and feet

Now that you’ve learned about Barn Owls, maybe you can visit a nearby barn at night and find an owl! Though I’ve handled these owls, I’ve never actually seen one in the wild. Perhaps I will find one soon! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dress in white tonight and make raspy noises while climbing up a tree.

 

The Wonderful World of Owls

Did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament? Did you know that most owls use the nests of other creatures? Did you know that some owls live in underground tunnels? Did you know that young owls can climb trees? Did you know that there are “Ghost Owls”? Did you know that one of the most vicious gangster owls was Owl Capone? Time to learn about some cool owls!

Young burrowing owls

Owls are generally solitary birds, except during the breeding season. If you do happen to find a group of owls hanging out together, you’ve managed to find a parliament! Though they are more efficient at accomplishing tasks than many human parliaments, most owls don’t build their own nests, but use abandoned Red-tailed Hawk nests or tree cavities created by woodpeckers. Female Short-eared Owls will often form a nest in the ground and arrange feathers and grass around the mound, whereas Snowy Owls will hollow out depressions on the tundra floor. These owls choose their nesting sites so that the surrounding vegetation or hills will help conceal their nests. An exception to these examples is the Burrowing Owl. These owls utilize burrows created by badgers, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, or other creatures which dig underground tunnels. Sometimes Burrowing Owls will excavate their own burrows or even nest in PVC pipes! I guess you should be careful when constructing potato guns. Interestingly enough, some owls will place mammal dung at the entrances of burrows! Some scientists believe this is used to attract dung beetles, which will serve as food for the young. Other researchers suggest that the odor may deter potential predators. You probably shouldn’t try this at home!

Short-eared owl at nest with chicks

Female Short-eared Owl with chicks at nest. These owls get their name from the short tufts (which are not ears) that project above the head.

Burrowing owl peeking out from burrow

This Burrowing Owl appears to be auditioning for Angry Birds!

Burrowing owl feeding chicks at den

Parent feeding young Burrowing Owls.

Once the eggs have been laid, incubated, and hatched, the parents spend a lot of time hunting. Young owls grow very rapidly and needs lots of food to keep up with their high metabolism. The chicks of ground-nesting owls may eat close to their weight and increase in size by over 50% in a single day! This rapid development is important as owl chicks on the ground may be vulnerable to predators such as foxes and wolves. After they are about 2-3 weeks old, young Short-eared and Snowy Owl chicks begin moving away from the nest, though the parents still feed and care for them. Chicks are often fed rodents, and some owl species experience population explosions when there is an abundance of valuable food sources. For example, Snowy Owls sometimes experience population booms through large clutches of eggs when there are high numbers of lemmings in the summer. These irruptions may drive northern-dwelling owls further south than normal. I sometimes venture farther away from home if there is a good supply of delicious ice cream.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Snowy Owl chicks at nest, 2. Female with two owlets, 3. Female in flight, 4. Male feeding young. Females generally have more dark markings than males.

Well, I’m getting tired and tomorrow I have to help care for the raptors at the World Bird Sanctuary. Hopefully you’ve learned some interesting things about these amazing birds! My next blog will be about owls climbing trees and acting like ghosts in the night. I suppose that’s owl for now, but don’t worry, owl be back!

Great horned owl portrait

This Great Horned Owl is not impressed by my bad puns.

My Neighbors are Raptors

I recently began working with the World Bird Sanctuary on a project to improve their trail network. The sanctuary cares for many birds of prey and is located in the St. Louis area in Missouri. Check out their Facebook page to see cool pictures and videos! My work with birds began with an internship at the sanctuary in 2010. That experience stirred my passion for conservation and birds and influenced the career decisions I’ve made over the past 6+ years. From handling a Golden Eagle, to marching up to 12 miles a day in the hot sun along the Gulf Coast, to being held-up at gunpoint while doing bird surveys on a Navy base, I’ve had some interesting experiences working with birds. Besides, who wouldn’t want to spend their life working with birds after being bitten and scratched by ravens, hawks, eagles, owls, and vultures? Cleaning up bird poop and preparing fine meals by gutting fish, rabbits, rats, and venison is also a bonus.

Some of the raptors that I worked with during my internship in 2010.

I’m staying on site and my room is connected to a building which houses some of the raptors which are trained for education. Many of the raptors kept at the sanctuary either cannot be released into the wild due to injuries, or have been raised by the sanctuary for educational purposes. During the day, many of the birds here spend time outside in weathering areas, which allow them to get some fresh air and sunshine. At night, they are moved indoors and provided dinner. Seeing powerful birds up close and playing a part in their conservation is an awesomely rewarding experience! There are also a number of birds staying in mews, which are structures built to house raptors. Right now, my neighbors include Bald Eagles, hawks, owls, and vultures. There are also two young Barn Owls next door that will potentially become educational flyers and ambassadors for the sanctuary. Finally, there are two Thick-billed Parrots which like to pretend they are Laughing Kookaburras. As you might imagine, my “neighborhood” is not very quiet!

A few of my new neighbors. Clockwise from top left – Livia the Red-tailed Hawk, Patriot the Bald Eagle, Desi the Hooded Vulture, and Goblin the Barn Owl.

Last night, I had a very tiny visitor – a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. There are a number of songbirds that live in the area as well as some groundhogs, possums, and a family of Raccoons! I’m fortunate to have such interesting neighbors and am looking forward to working closely with raptors again. As I’m finishing this blog, I can hear Orion (one of the young Barn Owls next door) making loud rasping noises. His roommate Whisper is quieter and rarely makes a sound. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a bunch of bird calls and eat some rats to fit in with my neighbors.

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The Bower of Love

Many birds are known for their melodic songs, bright colors, and courtship rituals, but did you know that bowerbirds can build stick castles? Did you know that some bowerbirds will actually paint their structures and decorate them with natural and man-made objects?  Time to learn about some amazing bird engineers!

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In the forests of Australia and New Guinea, there some birds that kick up the creativity and wow factor during courtship through structural engineering. Bowerbirds are comprised of about 20 species and are named for the elaborate “bowers” that the males build to attract females. I should point out that bowers are not nests and the male does not help raise the young. Male bowerbirds gather all kinds of materials to add to the grandeur of their castles. Males will arrange an assortment of sticks, leaves, moss, colorful flowers, rocks, coins, and even plastic bottlecaps or toys to impress the ladies! Constructing a good bower takes a lot of hard work! Sometimes male bowerbirds will use a theme when designing their bower. Presenting the petals of brightly-colored flowers is commonly done by flowerbirds bowerbirds.

Bower of a Vogelkop bowerbird decorated with natural and man-made objects Decorated bower of Vogelkop bowerbird

Image result for bowerbird  Vogelkop bowerbird male, in bower arranging ornaments with habitat view

Some male bowerbirds may add color to their bowers by chewing up berries! The birds use the juice to stain their bowers! Some species, like the Satin Bowerbird, even color-code their structures! Satin Bowerbirds seem to prefer blue and will collect blue items such as berries, feathers, flowers, insects, and shells. This means that male Satin Bowerbirds are quite annoying to face in Mariokart. After the males have finished creating their palaces, females will come up to the bowers and inspect them. If a female is impressed with the male’s work, she will mate with him and then move off to build a nest. If the male’s design doesn’t meet the female’s standards, she will move on to another bower. Males will sometimes attempt to encourage a female to visit by dancing and singing. According to researchers, some bowerbirds arrange their bowers to produce optical illusions that influence visiting females! Check out this link from BBC to learn more about this! Experienced males may win the affections of multiple females over the course of the breeding season. Occasionally, a veteran male may hire a group of young bowerbirds to help defend his bower from intruders while he gathers supplies. These defenders are called bower rangers. Ducks for cover.

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              Welcome to my bower!                                            Everything is blue

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           Must find more blue items!                                         Hey ladies! I’m rich!

I hope you found this small glimpse into the world of bowerbirds interesting! They are certainly unique and fascinating birds. If you’re interested in seeing them in action, check out the videos by BBC on Youtube. Did you know that a new movie about male bowerbirds and their quest to win females is coming out soon? It’s called Lord of the Wings: The Two Bowers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some blueberries to decorate my new log cabin.

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Look at me! I have a berry!

Amazing Animal Engineers

Did you know that some animals are excellent engineers? Did you know that if a tree falls in a forest, a beaver hears the sound? Did you know that Spiderman is capable of being an awesome engineer? Did you know that some birds build stick castles for the ladies? Time to learn about some amazing animals!

This orangutan is also a good engineer. From Mechanix Illustrated, November 1950.

First up is the quintessential wildlife engineer – the beaver. Beavers have been building dams for a lot longer than humans. Using their large teeth, these large, semi-aquatic rodents are capable of chopping down trees and maneuvering large limbs to create dams and lodges. A beaver lodge is a home made of branches, sticks, and mud. Lodges often contain an underwater opening and are a good place to raise young. Beavers will usually eat bark, twigs, leaves, and other plants. Their tail looks like a large pancake (tastes good with maple syrup) and acts like a rudder while swimming. Beavers sometimes slap their tails against the water and create a loud signal that carries across the water and warns other beavers of potential danger. I’m not sure if that includes Justin Beaver.

Juvenile and adult beaver feeding on bark  American beaver felling a tree

Beavers create dams to control the flow of water and to protect their homes. Having fast-flowing water rip through your lodge would not be fun for a beaver. Some dam systems are quite intricate and include series of canals! As you might guess, beaver engineering affects the local ecosystem in a major way. By cutting down specific trees and diverting the flow of water, beavers can impact a variety of ecological processes, plants, and other wildlife. For example, the systems of pools and waterways created by beavers can reduce flooding and soil erosion. Some plants and wildlife can thrive in the small wetlands that arise from beaver engineering. On the other hand, beaver activity may negatively affect organisms which rely on flowing water, and beaver dams have hurt some farming practices and trout fisheries. The largest beaver dam on record, is located in Alberta, Canada and is over 2700 feet in length!! That’s over twice as long as the Hoover Dam! Interestingly enough, the dam was first located using Google earth and satellite imagery! Researchers suggest that several beaver families may have contributed to this natural wonder.

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Google Earth image of the largest beaver dam in the world.

Next up are spiders. Spiders are well known for creating intricate webs made of silk. If you are bitten by a radioactive spider, you just might gain superpowers and a strong desire to talk to yourself out loud. Spiderman normally uses his webbing to swing from building to building, entrap enemies, or break a fall. However, if he had studied engineering, he could create so many amazing things. On a side note, one of the most annoying things is to walk face-first into a spiderweb. During one morning doing bird surveys, I walked into about 50 spider webs and spent a lot of time pulling sticky webbing off my glasses. Anyway, Orb-weaving Spiders (Thousands of species in the Family Araneidae) design many of the familiar spiral webs to catch prey. There are usually circular sections of the web that are comprised of sticky silk, but the orb-weavers tiptoe across non-sticky lines throughout the web. When an insect (or occasionally something bigger!) gets stuck in the web, the spider comes out and cocoons the prey for a tasty meal. Many orb-weavers actually spin new webs almost every day! Many spider webs are quite beautiful, though people don’t often stop to appreciate them due to fear of creepy, crawly things.

Golden orb spider on web Related image

Recent studies and explorations have led scientists to claim that the largest web in the world is produced by the Darwin’s bark spider. As is the case with many spiders, females are larger than males. Females are generally between 15 and 20 mm long, while males are around 5-6 mm long. Despite their tiny size, Darwin’s bark spider have been recorded creating webs over 25 meters across! The material of these webs is said to be stronger than steel or kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests! The silk used in the webbing is also extremely elastic and resistant to breaking.  Hmm . . . maybe I should create a vest out of spider webs so that I can fight crime. By spreading out tough webs over rivers, the spiders can catch insects that frequently use the water, such as dragonflies and mayflies.

That's no washing line (Credit: Matjaž Gregorič) A Darwin's bark spider (Caerostris darwini) (Credit: Matjaž Gregorič)

Left – bark spider web spanning across a river (photo: Matjaž Gregorič).                         Right – Darwin’s bark spider (photo: Matjaž Gregorič)

I hope you find the creations of beavers and spider fascinating. Try to remember that most spiders are harmless and actually help control insect populations. Hold a pet tarantula if you need practice overcoming a fear of spiders. These animals really are amazing engineers! My next blog will spend time on bowerbirds and their efforts to create nests to impress! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to slap some water with a tennis racket and spin a bulletproof web to catch some dinner.

What Does the Fox Really Say?

A few years ago, the Norwegian duo Ylvis used a combination of techno and electronic dance music to produce a viral video about what a fox sounds like. Now their hit was obviously written in jest, but what does a fox actually sound like? What about a moose? What bird is commonly used for jungle sounds in movies? What creature can mimic car alarms? This blog will examine some interesting sounds in nature, while providing some fascinating facts and stories along the way.

Red fox in snow, side profile  Red fox cubs at den entrance

You may be familiar with the fact that foxes are Canids and are related to dogs. For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to focus on the Red Fox, which is commonly found in North America, Eurasia, Australia, and even portions of northern Africa. Red Foxes are  not picky eaters, and will consume rabbits, hares, small mammals, birds, eggs, grubs, fruit, carrion, and even trash! They adapt fairly well to a variety of environments and utilize dens for sleeping and raising young. Their bushy tails are capable of sensing underground movements through specialized hair sensors located near the tip. Okay, I made that up. So what does the fox say? Red Foxes can make some high-pitched barking noises and squeals. During the mating season, a fox may produce some unearthly screams to communicate with a partner. Males are called dogs and females are called vixens. Check out the clip below to hear some fox sounds!

Red fox carrying brown trout prey

Foxes sometimes go fishing.

Most moose calls sound similar to cow calls, with some deep bellowing and grunting. Moose are often found in forests close to water and enjoy munching on plants and twigs. Moose are the largest living species of deer, with males capable of growing up close to 7 feet high (not counting the antlers) and weighing over 1400 pounds! Apparently moose are often called “elk” in parts of Europe and Asia, which makes me wonder what name people use for elk. Anyway, do you know what my favorite moose is? White Chocolate Moose.

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If you’ve ever watched a movie that was set in the jungle, you’ve probably heard the call of the Laughing Kookaburra. Kookaburra are members of the esteemed Kingfisher family and are native to Australia, living primarily in eucalyptus forests. They have a loud, powerful call that has been described as sounding like human laughter, hence their name. The calls are used for territorial purposes and are often used near dusk and dawn, earning kookaburras the nickname “Bushman’s Clock”. Unlike some of their relatives, kookaburras do not usually eat fish, preferring to feast on small birds, mice, reptiles, and invertebrates.

Laughing kookaburra with prey in beak

Laughing kookaburra family group

There is a lot of laughter when the family gets together.

Finally we come to the Superb Lyrebird. I’m not sure if this bird can mimic a lyre, but it is capable of some astonishing imitations, including chainsaws and car alarms! Native to eastern Australia, lyrebirds are quite large for songbirds, with males capable of growing to lengths of over 3 feet. Males have large tails with fancy feathers and plumes that are used in courtship displays. Superb Lyrebirds generally eat invertebrates and are often found in eucalyptus forests, much like kookaburras! Some researchers believe that the size of a male’s vocabulary may indicate fitness and impact his attractiveness to females. Check out the cool video below to watch and listen as a male lyrebird performs his imitations! You’ll also get to hear kookaburra calls!

This is just a small taste of the wonderful symphonies found in nature. Hopefully you’ve learned something and don’t have that catchy song about foxes stuck in your head. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to attract some attention by mimicking a chain saw.

Superb lyrebird

I Conquered My Nemesis

In a recent post, I wrote about my nemesis; a crafty bird with a dark mask that had eluded me at every turn for over 3 years. There had been a couple of occasions where I heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler singing, but I was unable to catch even a glimpse of him. There were whispers, legends really, that these warblers could be found at certain sites, but my pursuits proved unfruitful. Last week, I stumbled upon some recent records that indicated my nemesis was holed up with a number of his relatives along a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. Along with my father, I set off in the morning to find my nemesis under the guise of a nice hike in the woods. 

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Shortly after we began hiking the trail, I heard was I was eagerly listening for; the buzzy “Beer beer bee!” of a Black-throated Blue. As to be expected with a clever nemesis, we were unable to get a bead on his location among the treetops. Confident that we would have ample opportunities, I moved on down the trail. A few minutes later, I heard another one singing and my razor-sharp eyes caught a quick flash of movement. Pulling my binoculars up to my eyes, I finally saw my nemesis for the first time. The moment felt so sweet, and I realized that the years of searching and disappointment had culminated in a great victory. I watched the warbler forage among the leaves and then continued hiking, stopping to see other birds and the creeks along the path. Sometime later, a Black-throated Blue Warbler actually came out around some bushes about 5 feet away and chopped down an insect while I watched. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take a picture with my phone in time, but it was still a cool experience. I ended up seeing 4 males and a female, and also heard about 9 other males! I also saw Winter Wrens for the first time, which was a nice bonus. As I was hiking back to my car, I heard the nasally call of a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the distance, but could not locate his position. Perhaps he will become my new nemesis, but for now, I’m going to revel in my victory.

Black-throated blue warbler Black-throated blue warbler male singing

Male Black-throated Blues are quite handsome.

Male red-breasted nuthatch

Is this my new nemesis?

An ice cream celebration is certainly in my future. If you have a nemesis, keep pursuing him/her and don’t give up. Be persistent, even when disappointment strikes and eventually your efforts will be rewarded. Unless you’re trying to catch a porcupine with your mouth. And if your nemesis continues to elude you, you can always say in a deep gravelly voice, “I’ll get you next time Gadget . . . next time.”

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