For the Birds Radio Program: Northern Hawk Owl

Original Air Date: Jan. 12, 1987

An owl so rare Audubon never saw a living one is pretty easy to see this year just outside of Duluth.

Duration: 3′51″


Northern Hawk-Owl

(Recording of a Northern Hawk-Owl)

That was the call of a captive Northern Hawk-Owl, a bird so rare that no recordings of wild birds are available commercially–a bird so rare that John James Audubon never saw a single one in all the years he spent in the North American wilderness–he had to paint his from specimens sent to him by a Thomas MacCulloch of Nova Scotia.

Last week, my husband was talking on the phone with a business associate in Washington D.C. who wistfully said he wished he could spend his winters in Duluth–simply to see the visiting northern owls our area is famous for. Since the Christmas Bird Count December 20, one of the rarest of these visitors, a Northern Hawk-Owl, has been seen regularly on Lester River Road, about a mile and a half to two miles north of Superior Street. Reports of this owl are carried via the birding grapevine all over the country, and out-of-state birders have been flocking here to see it. This small, attractive owl is often easy to see from the roadside–it sits on telephone poles or at the very tops of spruce trees, and allows people to come unbelievably close. Hawk-owls are noted by ornithologists for their tameness. Perhaps because they have no natural enemies among large mammals in their far north home, they simply don’t fly away when a human approaches. Some of the specimens in museums are of birds actually caught in the hand by early American ornithologists. The Hawk-Owl is the perfect bird to take little kids out to see because it’s so tame.

Hawk-owls are true owls, with the silent flight and excellent night-vision typical of owls. But they look quite a bit like hawks– their posture when perched looks like a hawk’s, and their flight is very falcon-like. They fly close to the ground when hunting, and so have a long, falcon-like tail for quick maneuverability. And, because they spend their summers in the boreal forests of the far north, where daylight can last over twenty hours, they’re perfectly capable of hunting by day–one of their common names is even the “day owl.”

Hawk-owls are superb hunters, and unusually strong, too. They can successfully take prey far bigger than they themselves are. Although they weigh a mere 12 ounces, they can easily take ptarmigan or grouse weighing over 18 ounces!

Hawk-owls are rare even here in northern Minnesota, except in invasion years, which occur about once every ten years. In a normal year, there are about 5 or 6 reports of hawk-owls in Minnesota, and fewer in Wisconsin. One of the most regular places to see them is toward Virginia in the Sax-Zim Bog area. And sure enough, there’s one there this year–it’s been seen on several occasions about 1 1/2 miles north of Cotton on the west side of Highway 53.

Hawk-owls often remain in a small area for several weeks, but, sooner or later, they run out of mice and have to move on. So if you want to see this exotic visitor from the north, you’d be well advised to take a drive up Highway 53 or the Lester River Road soon.

(Recording of the Northern Hawk-Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”