For the Birds Radio Program: One Hungry Owl

Original Air Date: March 1, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about a hungry owl and the mouse that got away. (4:06) Date verified.

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Right after I put together my last program, about how hard it is to find food this time of year, I heard some sad proof about just that point. Jeff Pentel, one of my birding buddies from Montana, had been birding with another friend of mine, Dudley Edmondson, who’s one of the best raptor photographers in the country. Dudley, in his endless quest for wonderful photographs, was searching out Great Gray Owls in Aitken County. They came upon one who allowed them wonderful opportunities for closeups.

Great Gray Owls spend much of their winter days listening hard to sounds beneath the snow. On a snow-muffled, silent winter day, great grays can hear sounds we can’t even imagine. According to ornithologists, they can hear a mouse chewing a piece of grass a hundred yards away beneath 18 inches of snow. When I see great grays, I’m always awed by their powerful ability to concentrate. They usually look up when I pull over and stop, but as soon as they satisfy themselves that I’ m not going to attack, they return to the serious business of listening to the ground. When they hear a mouse, they fly toward it on silent wings, hover to pinpoint the exact spot, and plunge through the snow to grasp the tiny morsel in their talons, killing it instantly. The mouse never knows what hit it. The Great Grays I’ve watched push themselves out of the snow with their enormous wings and swallow their prey in one gulp. Then they take off, often returning to their original listening perch.

Anyway, Dudley and Jeff’s Great Gray Owl was listening hard and finally heard a mouse not far from where the guys were sitting in their car. Jeff couldn’t get over the magnificent sight of this owl, hovering above the snow in the diffuse afternoon light, every molecule of its body concentrating on one tiny sustaining morsel beneath the snow. Dudley’ s concentration was apparently just about as keen as the owl’s as he took shot after shot of the hovering bird.

Suddenly it dove down, feet first, straight into the snow, and crashed into the icy crust. A well­ fed Great Gray weighs only about 2 or 2 ½ pounds, and this one didn’t have nearly enough mass to break through the thick, hard mass of thawed and refrozen snow. But Great Grays are patient, persistent birds, and this one tried again. And again. Jeff said they watched it plunge into the snow at least five times, each time dashing its talons against rock hard ice. There was one lucky rodent under the snow, and one hungry owl with sore knuckles above.

This winter Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk Owls, and Boreal Owls are appearing in the northland in big numbers. More and more of the tiny Boreal Owls are being found dead on roadsides and yards, and as February turns into March, times will grow even more difficult for these visitors from the far north. There’s not a whole lot we can do to help them short of buying out pet shop mouse supplies and training the owls to catch them.

But owls ask for neither our pity nor our help, and when we look deep into their arresting eyes, we see much more than hunger and desperation. There’s intelligence, pride, honesty, courage, and a magical quality that evokes all the mysteries of that wild earth that we have abandoned in favor of the protection of cabins and refrigerators and pack boots. When owls look into our eyes, what do they see in us? When our eyes meet an owl’s, the owl should behold respect, decency, and kindness, the beautiful and mysterious qualities of the human soul. An owl’s encounters with us should be filled with as much magic and wonder as our encounters with the owl ever are.