by Pat Jaquith
Seeing owls is always an unexpected treat because their schedule is generally opposite of mine! But occasionally, one of the several species that live in the West Valley does pass my way in daylight. These predatory birds’ coloration blends in with their environment and makes them very hard to spot. With the exception of the diurnal Pygmy Owl, their wing feathers are structured to propel them silently through the air, and their ability to perch motionless and wait and listen for prey to reveal themselves are characteristics that are key to their success as hunters.
Owls do not build their own nests. The little seven-inch-long Pygmy is a cavity nester, often using woodpecker holes. Since a big, old Ponderosa Pine that was full of Pileated Woodpecker holes came down, we haven’t seen one. Pygmy owls eat a lot of moths, beetles, and grasshoppers, but they often frequent bird feeders where they prey on seed-eating songbirds. This one seemed to follow a Blue Jay (11″) when it came in for water. The leader of the small Douglas Fir didn’t waiver as the 2.5oz owl kept an eye on the noisy Blue Jay. Above left, the Pygmy perched with its back to me demonstrated its neck flexibility as it rotated its head 180 degrees looking in my direction. Owls are unable to rotate their eyes; to compensate for one-directional vision, they rotate their whole head. Above right, the owl shows its “eyes” in the back of its head as it looked away. The Blue Jay eventually tired of the game and flew away, and the owl sped away in the opposite direction.
Snowy Owls irrupt from the North when lemmings and voles they depend on as prey are in short supply or the snow cover is too challenging for catching them. The black-and-white pattern of feathers on this bird are those of a first year bird. Older adult birds are nearly white. They tend to be here for a few months between December and March. Snowy Owls are 23″ long with 52″ wingspan. These birds weigh 4lb – the heaviest of the owls we see.
Great Horned Owls are one of the most frequently-seen owls in this area. They are about 22″ tall, with a wing span of 44″. We had heard an owl hooting nearby for some time before I disturbed this one as I walked through the woods. After seeing this one, we found a collection of about 20 owl pellets underneath a Ponderosa Pine branch, and we continued to find new pellets under the perch for at least a year. The pellets we dissected contained hair and bones of mice. Great Horned owls are reputed to be the greatest predator of Striped Skunks. One fall, I found two big stumps in the forest that were covered with beautiful long, soft black and white hair – enough to have kept a skunk very warm.
As most owls are nocturnal hunters, they rely on keen hearing to locate their prey. Their ears are located in area of the dark ring (facial disc) near the eyes. Often mistaken for ears, the moveable feathers on its head function in camouflage and display. By hunting at night, they avoid competition with hawks.
I came upon these owls early in the morning. They both seemed to be asleep in the bright sun. I wondered if morning found them where they were last perched while hunting.
What a beautiful bird! Our biggest owl, it is 27″ tall with a wingspan of 52″. But for all that size, it weighs only 2.4 lb. I was walking along a forest trail in the West Valley when I looked ahead and there was a magnificent bundle of feathers perched on a mossy gray stump right beside the trail! Great Gray Owls are birds of cold climates. Their range is from Alaska through parts of Canada to southwestern Montana.
The Great Gray Owl has a relatively long tail, as seen in the upper left photo; among its abundant curly feathers, the eye spots on the back of its head are hard to see in these photos. This owl didn’t seem to be disturbed by my presence as it moved on the stump and constantly rotated its head as if scanning the area for something flying over. The very flat face of the owl is really evident in the upper right photo.
Great Gray Owls are expert rodent hunters in winter. They can hover over an area on silent wings using their keen hearing unimpeded by noise from their feathers to pinpoint the location of a vole or mouse chewing on vegetation then plunge feet first into snow – even crusted snow two feet deep – and come up with prey in their talons.
The Great Gray Owl shared its space with me for about 3 minutes before lifting off the stump on those tremendous wings that filled the open space over the trail and silently disappeared.
There are other owl species in the West Valley, and I’d love to make their acquaintance. If ever I’m so fortunate to see one, I’ll add it to this document! If you have an owl story to share, please think about posting it on this website!