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home : columns : columns August 16, 2017

4/19/2017 2:53:00 PM
A bit about those marvelous, mysterious owls

Ron Kuecker
Outdoors Columnist

A week or so ago, when the pink moon of spring was nearing its fullness, I heard them loud and clear. It was around midnight, that time when guys with as many tree rings as I have, awake from their recliner nap, grab a glass of water, and head to bed.
The eight or nine hoots between a male and female owl sounded loudly from the tall maples that still remained from Bill Pflughaupt's old grove of a long time ago. Only now, they are in my backyard surrounding our 30-year-old home. As quietly as legs stiffened by too long in the chair can be, I went to the back door, opened it slowly and listened.
The hooting was loud just above me, then moved a bit as the hooters heard me, quite easily I am guessing. It was no doubt what my dad had identified as simply a hoot owl back on our Iowa farm where they were quite common during my single-digit years.
Nowadays, when nearly everyone has a "bird book" (or should), they are referred to in their more correct nomenclature as the barred owl. The barred owl has been moving westward and more northerly, through the forests of that area, for some time. They have now invaded the northwest, USA and are even considered an unwanted invasive species by some.
It has only been a few decades ago that all the eyes of the environmentalists fell on the decline of the spotted owl in Oregon and Washington state. Harvest of too many old growth trees was the reason, they stated. And, many, many small family-owned lumbering businesses were forced out of business due to bad publicity from the so-called tree huggers.
I actually saw it and talked to people from those small lumbering towns as we took the backroads on a trip through the northwest forests.
But then later, we heard about an invading owl that was the real reason for the decline of the small spotted owl. The bigger, more aggressive barred owl was moving in, and, just as sure as coyotes in our area have driven out red fox, the barred owl did the same thing to the spotted owl.
In our area I'm happy to hear the occasional hoot of the barred owl that calls more in the middle of the night than the great horned owl. I truly hope they don't drive out their little cousin, the screech owl. I'm thinking the great horned will keep them to a level low enough they won't bother the little screeches.
That pink moon thing? That came from the early spring growth of a pink colored phlox that was seen during earlier times before the plow.
Less common owls
Two of our less common owls are the short eared and the barn owl.
The last barn owls I saw were in an old barn about a mile east of Storden. I was there to vaccinate some gilts where Gary Olson kept them on that old farm place.
When we finished he said, "Ron, I want to show you something." We climbed the ladder to the hayloft and there they were, just as stately as any picture you've ever seen of those wise old owls.
It's been said a pair of barn owls will kill, eat and feed their owlets up to 3,000 various mice, rats, moles and voles during a summer.
One of the other less common owls around our area is the short eared owl. George Robinson called two years ago wondering what type of owl he might have on his farm. He described it as spending much of its time on the ground when not flying low and slow over his prairie grass.
Together we concluded it was a short eared owl and it eventually produced some young whose survivability we do not know.
I have seen them with more regularity in South Dakota, especially on several occasion on a short grass CRP planting just south of my brothers home in Florence, S.D. just northwest of Watertown.
Two big owls
Occasionally in winter we get some all white snowy, arctic owls that drift south in winter during periods of cyclical low lemming numbers. They too are ground owls and one time I actually saw one sitting on a railroad track.
They are probably our heaviest owl at four to five pounds.
The very best owl sightings I have ever made were seeing a great gray on two occasions along the Des Moines River in the fall. They are even bigger then the great horned owl in length and wing span. If you see one watching you as you sit in a tree stand while hunting deer as a former friend of mine once did, you are truly blessed.
Sight or sound
Many have wondered is it great vision or keen hearing that enables owls to hunt so well at night. I have concluded it is both working together but the hearing may be a bit more important.
The facial disc collects sounds and directs them to an external ear that then sends them to the highly refined auditory lobe of the brain. Big pupils, elongated eyes and a retina with more rods that see black and white, enhance the vision.
I could sure use more of both for myself.

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