Archive for the ‘Owls’ Category

Bird Irruptions

January 8, 2014

By The Fat Finch

When I first heard this term I had a vision of little birds spewing out of a volcano. But we’re not talking about that kind of eruption.

In the avian world, a bird irruption is a term scientists use to describe unusually large numbers of non-migratory northern birds that move out of their nesting range, typically in North America’s boreal forest. The birds leave the vast, wild expanse of forest, tundra and wetlands that span the width of Canada and Alaska to spend the winter farther south than normal. The irruption occurs because of changes in food supply.

The species that most commonly engage in irruption behavior are northern owls, such as the Great Gray Owl and Snowy Owl and certain grosbeaks including evening grosbeaks. In irruptive years, large numbers of these species may move down into the United States.

This  winter there is an irruption of snowy owls coming down into the United States as far down as Kansas and northern Colorado. And this event is causing another kind of eruption—photographers and birders are swarming into these areas to photograph and view these magnificent birds.

Several springs ago a very large number of western tanagers migrated through my area of the world (New Mexico) and stayed for approximately three weeks before heading to their normal summer homes. Was it an irruption? No, it was simply a normal migration of birds who occasionally stay in larger numbers for a longer period of time before moving on. It was a lucky and enjoyable event—I didn’t get much work done because I was staring out the window constantly looking at these gorgeous birds. They also ate 20 lbs of grape jelly off my oriole feeders during those three weeks.

Bird migration is a familiar and predictable seasonal movement of birds. Species that migrate do so every year at approximately the same time, traveling in a predetermined pattern, often to exactly the same destination time after time. Migrations are closely related to the breeding season and the arrival of spring in the breeding range. In contrast, irruptions are unpredictable. It’s all part of the wonderful and amazing world of birds.

Toe Dusting

December 10, 2010

We met a Barn Owl this week. We liked him, but he didn’t care for us. As a matter of fact, when your author walked in to our store where the local animal rescue people had brought it for educational purposes, the owl lowered its head and shook it in the universally recognized shake of disapproval. The rescuers of the owl told me not to take it personally, but I knew better. That owl was rescued after an encounter with a high voltage electrical line which it would not have encountered were it not for humanity’s insatiable desire for electricity. He had no use for me or any other of my fellow Homo sapiens, except possibly for those who rescued him and now care for him.

The rescuers assured us the owl was “toe dusting.” Fairly new to its role as a teacher of humans, the owl was stressed and toe dusting was the physical sign of that stress. Ornithologists hold that Barn Owls lower their heads and shake it over their talons, either as an aggressive signal or as a defensive behavior.

Toe Dusting

I don’t believe it. They do it as a message of disapproval, just like that herbaceous Mountain Goat on the Olympian Peninsula in Washington State a few weeks ago when it gored a man in the leg and then stood over the man until he bled to death. The animals are getting angry with us and who can blame them?

But even if it was threatening me, that owl has the softest eyes of any bird I’ve ever seen up close. Mind you, if I were a field mouse or a vole scuttling across a snow field on a cold, crystalline night and looked up when that owl’s shadow crossed the snow I doubt that I would find anything soft about those eyes. I would see the eyes of a minister of death. And that shadow I would see the instant before my death would be the first clue I had that an owl was anywhere nearby: Owls are about the only land-dwelling animals who never make a sound they don’t intend to make.

But I was in no danger from the owl, and I loved his eyes. They reminded me of Edward Howe Forbush springing to the defense of Barn Owls in his magisterial Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. Defending them from unjust persecution, he called them “benefactors to mankind.”

Like Forbush, I may be susceptible to emotional projection and may have mirrored my own consciousness when I looked in those eyes, but I don’t believe that either. Those were the wise eyes of an old soul looking out at me.

Merlin

The rescuers also brought a Merlin with them. Nothing soft about a Merlin’s eyes I can assure you. Falcon eyes put one in mind of Yeats’ horseman,

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

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Here is our post on identifying Barn Owls and here is more on Barn Owls and Halloween. George Orwell also wrote about Barn Owls.


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