For the Birds Radio Program: Arizona Owls

Original Air Date: Dec. 29, 1999 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: June 28, 2017; March 13, 2008; Jan. 19, 2004; Sept. 18, 2003; Jan. 17, 2003; Oct. 23, 2002; Jan. 29, 2001

Laura had a memorable trip to Arizona, with both near-death and an after-death experiences with owls.

Duration: 4′11″


This time of year, I like to envision warm times in exotic places, like when I went to Arizona on a 9-day Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union birdwatching adventure led by Kim Eckert in 1995. The twenty of us had a great time seeing over 180 species of birds, but one of the biggest treats was the owls. I added four new ones to my life list: Spotted, Northern Pygmy, Flammulated, and Western Screech-Owl, with fantastic looks and long listens, but the two most memorable owls were ones I’d seen on several earlier occasions. They provided our group with both a near-death and an after-death experience that none of us will soon forget.

The near-death experience started when my best friend, Karen Keenan, spotted a raptor dangling by what looked like a red ribbon from a barbed-wire fence as we drove toward the Florida Wash in Madera Canyon. We were in a hurry to see a Varied Bunting while it was still early and the temperature was under 100, and looking at a dead victim of a guy with a gun seemed morbid, but our curiosity got the best of us, so we turned around to check it out. It was a Barn Owl, a secretive nocturnal bird that we hadn’t expected to see, and since most of our group had never seen one, we walked up to get a closer look. As we approached, the bird suddenly fluttered its wings a bit, and I suddenly realized that what looked like a red ribbon was its bloody leg. On the ground beneath was a headless packrat. The owl had apparently had a bit to eat and had been carrying the rest home to its babies when its dangling leg got caught on the barbed wire.

In its struggles, the owl had wrapped itself twice around the top wire of the fence, the skin of its leg torn and stretched. Kim and I had to switch off spiraling the owl back around the fence to free it. It seemed to be in shock, and was clearly in pain, so we cut large holes in a styrofoam cooler, gave it a few drops of gatorade, and brought it to a rehab center. We didn’t have an opportunity all week to find out how it was doing, but this week we learned that the center had stitched up the wounded leg, provided electrolytes, given an antibiotic to prevent infection, and had already released it. The poor creature would have been dead within an hour or two—even if a coyote hadn’t found it, dangling upside down in 110-degree heat would have killed it in short order. It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever held a Barn Owl, and was a magical experience.

The after-death experience came the final evening of our tour. The book Finding Birds in Southeastern Arizona suggested checking out the Indian cemetery at the San Xavier Mission near Tucson for a Burrowing Owl. It was right after a short rainfall, the low sun providing a brilliant rainbow. And it was a pretty, happy little cemetery, with white crosses and brightly colored flowers and flags marking the graves. And sure enough, there was a Burrowing Owl teed up on the white cross nearest the road where we were parked. But I almost rubbed my binoculars in disbelief when I saw, on the cross behind him, three more owls. And then, what to my wondering eyes should appear but two more on the ground beneath. And then I saw five more, and then another ten. All in all, there were about 40 of these long-legged little owls running, flying, and perching around the graves, and dozens of ground squirrels scampering about, too. I imagined the subterranean caverns these owls had found for shelter, and could picture one saying to its friend, “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio.” Yep–if you’re on the lookout for a final resting place, you can’t beat Southwestern cemeteries for happy colors and fine companionship.