For the Birds Radio Program: 100th For the Birds Program: Boreal Owl

Original Air Date: Jan. 26, 1987

For Laura’s 100th program, she decided to talk about the bird she most badly yearns to see.

Duration: 3′49″


(Recording of a Boreal Owl).

Today marks the one-hundredth “For the Birds” program that I’ve produced. To celebrate, I thought about doing a program about my favorite bird, the Blue Jay–but since there’s one or two Blue Jay haters down in Port Wing, Wisconsin, who are sick and tired of hearing about jays, I decided to mark this historic occasion with a program about a bird I’ve never seen in the wild–the one Minnesota bird I most desperately want to find–the Boreal Owl.

The Boreal is a tiny owl–less than a foot tall. Like its close relative, the Saw-whet Owl, it’s a cute little thing, as even Kim Eckert, nationally recognized for his familiarity with this bird, will attest. Like the Hawk-Owl, the Boreal Owl is another owl of the far north known for its tameness. One Eskimo name for it is even “the blind one”–Eskimos apparently believed that the reason these birds were so easy to catch by hand was that they couldn’t see in daylight.

Unlike the Snowy Owl and Hawk-Owl, which hunt by day as well as night, the Boreal Owl is strictly nocturnal. Its small size and nighttime habits make it much more difficult to find than the other northern owls. It spends its days hidden in a dense evergreen, trusting its cryptic coloration will protect it as it digests its meal from the night before. Owls swallow their prey whole, or in large chunks. All the undigestible matter–bones, feathers, and fur–is spit out in tightly-packed dark gray masses called pellets, which look and feel as though they were made of felt. Birders often locate an owl by fresh pellets beneath its daytime roost.

One other difficulty in locating Boreal Owls is that they hardly ever stay put. The Northern Hawk-Owl that was found back on December 20 is still hanging around the Lester River Road a full month later, but a Boreal Owl is seldom found again the day after a sighting. So if you happen to spot one, I’d sure appreciate it if you’d call KUMD right away.

In some winters, Boreal Owls invade northern Minnesota in fairly large numbers. Between November, 1981, and April, 1982, for example, 39 Boreal Owls were reported in the state. The biggest invasion ever was in the winter of 1977-78–when 66 Boreal Owls were found. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin then–a lot of my birding buddies came to Duluth to add Boreal Owls to their lifelists, but between job commitments and a rotten case of the flu, I missed the expeditions. In both recent invasions, the bulk of the sightings were in late January through early March, so there’s still hope for me this year.

Nests of Boreal Owls were unknown in Minnesota until 1978, when Kim Eckert and Terry Savaloja located a nest in a dead black spruce stump along the Gunflint Trail in Cook County. Another nest was located in a Wood Duck nest box in the Superior National Forest near Tofte in 1982. In April and May, Boreal Owls can often be heard calling along the Gunflint. I’ve heard them on several occasions up there–and I saw an injured one in Molly Evan’s kitchen once–she’s the official hawk counter up at Hawk Ridge, and someone brought the bird to her to take to the Raptor Rehabilitation Center. Now all I need to do is see one in the wild.

(recording of a Boreal Owl)

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