Close encounters with great raptors enthrall children and oldsters alike

Photo by Sallie Anderson
The Eurasian eagle owl is the largest owl on earth, standing a head to a head and a half taller than the great horned owl.

It’s a tossup, when I go to a program like the the World Bird Sanctuary’s “Masters of the Sky” show, as to which is more intriguing:

  • The majestic birds themselves, as they fly just overhead and consent to be carried about the room for viewing at a distance of a few feet, or
  • The unabashedly awestruck responses they create on the human side of the interaction, with squealing children and octogenarians enthralled just about identically.

And so it was when the traveling program paid its annual visit to the Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center near Hastings last Saturday. For an hour, about 100 of us admired four owls, an eagle, a hawk and a vulture as they flew overhead and stood, more or less contented, on handlers’ mitts as we studied them.

Days later I can still feel my hair being brushed by a barn owl as it powered past my head, speeding from the back of the room to the front, without any sound at all. (It was a little while before I could make sounds again, too.)

This is the sort of experience the St. Louis-based sanctuary and its roadshow crew use for purposes both educational and evangelical, hoping that the more people appreciate the majesty of these creatures, the more willing they’ll be to support the conservation side of arguments that are far from settled.

Take my barn owl, christened “Abby” by her handlers. Hers is a species whose natural territory includes all the continents of the earth except Antarctica, but nowadays is also distinguished as “the most endangered owl throughout the Midwest,” according to presenter Teri Graves.

Poisons and unhuntable cropland

Barn owls were among the U.S. species that took a heavy hit from DDT before it was banned; today, however, the threats are less susceptible to that kind of remedy.

Photo by Sallie Anderson
The barn owl Abby is held aloft by Cathy Spahn of the World Bird Sanctuary.

Conversion of prairies and grasslands to row crops, with plantings spaced 18 inches apart for the convenience of mechanized agriculture, are hard on an avian hunter with a wingspread of three to four feet. And then there are the rodenticides.

“This is the best mousetrap we have on our planet. One barn owl like Abby can eat as many as 2,000 mice a year,” Graves said to the oohs and ahs of all the grade-schoolers. “But this is one of the reasons it is an endangered species.”

We humans hate mice. To get rid of them, many people put out mouse poison. Well, what people don’t think about is that when you put out mouse poison, the mouse doesn’t drop over dead right away. It wanders around sick for a couple of days, which makes it easier for the barn owl to catch them.

One poisoned mouse can kill a barn owl. And if Abby was raising a family — they can have five to eight, sometimes ten babies at a time — and she went out and caught a poisoned mouse, and fed part of it to her babies, we could lose Abby and five babies from the population.

I counted about 30 youngsters soaking in this conservation message, and I imagine at least a few dinner-table conversations that evening turned to the advisability of switching from poison to traps as a mouse-control strategy.

That’s how it went at our house, too, although my brush with Abby has also re-motivated me on a long-postponed project to put up some kind of large shed or small barn at our place to hold all the boats, snowthrowers, woodlot tools and camping gear that overfill our small garage. Something with windows I can leave ajar… and scatterings of unpoisoned mouse bait beneath the rafters.

According to the Minnesota DNR, barn owls are rare in Minnesota (and not listed for special protections as yet, as they are in seven other Midwestern states), but the metro area remains in their presumed range and, well, a fellow can hope.

Ambassador of Arctic irruption

If Abby got my vote for the most glorious of birds on display Saturday, the clear favorite for most of the room was a snowy owl called Tundra — a young and rather active exemplar of the ongoing irruption of this normally Arctic species that has become what Audubon Magazine’s current issue calls “the biggest snowy owl avalanche in half a century.”

Photo by Sallie Anderson
Panting from the relative heat, this young snowy owl was a thrilling sight to those who have been following the Arctic species’ historic irruption.

In the last couple of years, thanks to an explosion of lemming populations that led to big increases their brood sizes, snowy owls have been sighted all over the Midwest and as far south as Florida. Tundra, a female, was found injured in Kansas in late 2011. (The organization’s traveling birds are the products of rehabilitation programs or captive breeding.)

Even with the extensive mottling that distinguishes females from the virtually pure white males, this was a ghostly looking bird, covered even on her feet with thick feather layers that left her panting in the relative indoor warmth of a room that had many of us keeping our jackets on.

Perhaps the most gripping ecology lesson for many of the youngsters was the story of how Desi, an African hooded vulture, turns his eating habits into a defense weapon.

Photo by Sallie Anderson
Christina Rankin shows an African hooded vulture, whose scavenging habits can make it a dead-end repository for animal disease — unless a meal-seeking eagle intervenes.

Graves explained that whenever fate presents the vulture with a nice, ripe animal carcass, the bird stuffs itself until it grows too heavy to fly. Unfortunately, this makes him a sort of sitting duck for other predators, which the vulture can drive away with an awesome and thankfully undemonstrated display of projectile vomiting.

Which is just fine by tawny eagles like Max, who followed Desi on the program. In fact, Graves said, eagles have co-evolved with vultures in Africa to learn a little trick: They will threaten a sitting vulture with little attacking feints until the vulture is provoked into defending itself, which yields the eagle a warm meal without the hard work of hunting it down.

Also on the program:

  • Buzz, a very young tawny owl, who was clearly ill at ease in the room at Carpenter; you could watch him swiveling his head to take in all the mounted Minnesota raptors on display in the room, scanning for possible escape routes.
  • Sheldon, a Harris hawk, who surveyed the room with the cool diffidence of a more experienced performer (and confidence of a top predator).
  • Xena, a Eurasian eagle owl — largest owl species on earth, Graves said — that resembled a great horned owl-and-a-half, with darker coloration and deep-orange eyes.

Like her great horned cousins, Xena had upright feather tufts on her head. Like many of the children in the audience, I’ve often wondered what those were for, and Graves gave us the answer: for territorial and courtship displays.

(Also, they provide owl-handlers with clues to the animal’s mood, kind of like reading the ears on a cat. Now you know.)

Not really on the program, but worth a mention anyway, was a rehabilitated crow named Aesop who works in the sanctuary’s development department. Perched on a collection box, he snatches offered bills from donors’ hands, deposits them through the slot, and hands back a promotional refrigerator magnet.

Some people will find that tacky, I suppose, but I thought the bird looked quite content in this activity and, anyway, I just love the corvids, especially magpies and  crows.

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More information about the snowy owl irruption is available online here.

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