For the Birds Radio Program: Boreal Owl

Original Air Date: Oct. 27, 2000

The earliest record of a Boreal Owl in Wisconsin was a bird in need of help.

Duration: 4′16″


On October 24, 2000, I received a call from the Superior Animal Shelter . They had received a tiny owl from a local woman, who had rescued it from a cat in her yard. I expected the bird to be a Saw-whet Owl, but when I saw it, I discovered that it was a much rarer species–the earliest Boreal Owl ever recorded in autumn in Wisconsin.

There is something uniquely endearing about Boreal Owls. They’ re often described as “cute,” but the word “cute” jars and irritates me. People use it dismissively or even derisively, to describe something with ridiculously large ambitions for its size or value. When I was a kid there was a child actor named Kevin Corcoran who played a character called Moochie on the Mickey Mouse Club’s Spin and Marty series. He was a feisty little guy, and whenever he tried to punch out one of the bigger boys, the bigger one simply put his hand on Moochie’s forehead and held him at arm’s length while Moochie flailed his short little arms, hitting air. Grownups called that “cute.” They also called my ambition to be a veterinarian “cute,” which made it hard for me to take myself seriously enough to pursue vet school in college.

Describing Boreal Owls as cute dismisses their importance and dignity, though they don’t give a hoot what humans think of them, so it doesn’t stunt their aspirations the way it did mine. These tiny owls may not be powerful or big enough to grab a rabbit, but what would a Boreal Owl want with a rabbit anyway? To a mouse they’re every bit as ferocious as a tiger. They have exactly the size and strength they need to make their living, and that is admirable and fitting, not “cute.”

This is shaping up to be a big year for Boreals. By mid-October, banders at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory had already banded over 140 of what is usually a very rare catch, while banding only 70 of the common Saw-whet Owl. Boreals have been turning up in big numbers in Thunder Bay, a couple were banded at Hawk Ridge, and several injured ones have been found in Duluth and along the North Shore.

They often tum up in towns and cities. Everyone I have ever met who had a live one in their yard has felt a spark of joy and excitement. When a Boreal Owl’s eyes meet ours, we can’t help but feel a unique connection with what is wild and true. A good friend of mine had a Boreal visiting him for several weeks one severe winter. He set out mice that he’d caught in his basement and garage for the little owl, but the supply ran out and one day the owl seemed desperately hungry, so my friend snatched a chickadee right out of his feeder, honked it on the head, and fed it to the owl. Something like that seems horrifying to me in the abstract, but after holding little owls in my hands, seeing how trusting they quickly become, I’m not so sure my own maternal drive wouldn’t have been capable of the same thing. When I’ve come upon dead Boreal Owls, stiff and dead, their eyes dull and unseeing, I’ve felt like King Lear on the heath, witnessing an obscenity of nature. Fortunately, the vast majority of Boreal Owls that we find are both alive and well, and affirming our faith that the natural world’s secrets occasionally reveal themselves to us, providing a moment of charm and loveliness.