For the Birds Radio Program: Serendipity Owl

Original Air Date: Jan. 11, 2008 Rerun Dates: Dec. 22, 2015; Jan. 2, 2015; Jan. 16, 2014; Feb. 25, 2013; Dec. 27, 2012; Feb. 1, 2012; Jan. 7, 2011; Jan. 22, 2010

Sometimes when a situation isn’t working out well, a magical moment with a bird makes it all okay.

Duration: 3′52″


Did you ever find yourself in a situation you thought was terribly inconvenient and unpleasant, only to discover that it held unexpected and extremely pleasant side benefits that more than made up for the problems?

That’s what happened to me this week. I just moved into an apartment in Ithaca, New York, and to my dismay discovered that my cell phone, the only phone I have, works very poorly inside the apartment. I tried it at every window, and even tried the trick my landlord suggested—while they were building the place, her son had found a sweet spot in the closet under the stairs. But even when I got into my best Harry Potter mindset and hunkered down into the little closet, I still had trouble picking up a signal. And the phone didn’t work on the front porch, either.

Then in frustration, I went out onto the upstairs balcony and voila—the phone worked perfectly. Of course, this being the dead of winter, it was pretty cold up there, and I had to wear boots because I hadn’t shoveled the balcony, but at least I got a signal. I was talking to my husband, saying this was one of the terrible problems with moving into a place without checking out all the issues ahead of time, when suddenly a soft hooting reached my ears. A Great Horned Owl! The reason my apartment gets such poor reception is that it’s in an area of Ithaca called “Ellis Hollow.” The view is spectacular, with large hills and valleys all around and a river running right through the center. I was attracted to the place by the gorgeous view and natural setting, and apparently something about it also drew this owl.

This being January, Great Horned Owls are starting to hoot in earnest. They start nesting in the upper Midwest and northeastern states in late January or early February while winter is typically at its most severe. Their eggs are no less fragile than those of other birds, but the female, significantly larger than the male, provides a veritable hothouse under her thick insulating feathers. The eggs stay about 98 or 99 degrees Fahrenheit even when the air temperature is over 125 degrees colder. The female keeps her extremely warm brood patch tightly pressed against them virtually every moment on the coldest days, depending on her mate’s hunting prowess to provide her with all the calories she needs to maintain her body heat, but one brood of eggs did survive when a female left them alone for 20 minutes while the air temperature was 13 below.

Great Horned Owls most commonly produce two eggs but may lay as many as five. In freezing weather, each egg must be incubated from the start, so the first egg hatches a day or two before the second. The babies are naked at hatching, unable to regulate body temperature at all. Females brood virtually all the time for the first couple of weeks.

Even in midwinter, suddenly using my phone on the balcony doesn’t seem like a bad idea at all—I just hope my Ellis Hollow owl attracts a mate so while I’m chatting on the phone I can get a firsthand glimpse into their family life.