For the Birds Radio Program: Boreal Owl

Original Air Date: Nov. 5, 1990

Laura brought her little boy Tommy and and her neighbor to see a Boreal Owl at UMD.

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On October 24, I got a call from Judy Gibbs from the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Outdoor Program that a Boreal Owl was sitting in a bush right outside a window on campus. I’ve only seen a wild and free Boreal Owl once before—I have a lot more luck hearing them than seeing them. This bird was particularly exciting because the earliest seasonal record of a Boreal Owl in northern Minnesota was on October 22. Most of them turn up in the dead of winter.

So I bundled up five-year-old Tommy, grabbed Mary Tonkin (my favorite neighbor), who I knew would also like to see it, and rushed right over.

When a Boreal or Saw-whet Owl is discovered during the daytime, it’s likely to stick around all day. These little owls are the most nocturnal of birds. Their pupils cannot contract very much even in the brightest light, so when the sun is shining their eyes may feel rather like ours do right after the lights go on in a movie theater. Boreal Owls were named “the blind ones” by native people because they sit tight even when people approach amazingly close—many have been caught for banding by hand!

Of course, this tameness isn’t unique—isn’t unique. Many other northern birds are amazingly fearless. The very first Pine Grosbeak I ever saw flew down to me and lighted right on my hand. I’ve also had redpolls land on me, and once I stroked a Red Crossbill in my feeder. But Boreal Owls sit so tight that it does seem like more than just tameness is keeping them down. One man who had a Boreal Owl in captivity in the 1920s found that his bird sat very quietly all day when the weather was fine, but was quite active when it was rainy and dark, which supports the poor vision theory.

The particular owl that ended up at UMD was spooked enough by the university bustle that it actually did fly off a couple of times before I came on the scene. Owls tend to fly low, and this one smacked into the university windows at least twice. Some outdoor program people rescued it and kept it quiet for a while, but then it perked up and got away, landing low in a spruce tree.

The eyes of owls are much more elongated than human eyes. They could even be called eye tubes rather than eyeballs. They’re fixed in the sockets and can’t turn the way our eyes can to see above, below, or to the side. That’s why owls have such supremely flexible necks, which allow them to turn their heads beyond backwards to about 280 degrees. When an owl stares, its fixed gaze rivets attention like nothing else on earth—that’s probably why owls feature in the art and folklore of so many different kinds of cultures. This little guy was sitting right at Tommy’s level, staring at us, but even when we came right up to the tree, knowing exactly where he was, he was hard to pick out among the spruce branches.

Boreal Owls weigh in at about 4 ounces—the easiest way to see them is to listen for swearing chickadees. Normally, chickadees sound like their minds are filled only with pleasant thoughts, but when a genuinely angry-sounding note comes out of their little throats, invariably a small owl is nearby.

We watched the owl for several minutes. It’s hard to tear yourself away from anything that is at once so tiny, cute, and fierce. I came back later in the day to show it to my six-year-old Katie, who wanted it for her life list. Sure enough, it was still sitting in the same branch. Now the sun was low in the sky, and the owl was starting to look around with interest, possibly planning his hunting strategy for the night. Katie and I, standing hand in hand only 6 feet from it, were transfixed. We waited until the sun went down, then wished it godspeed and returned home.