Prophet of the Treetop

As far as birds go, owls are just about my favorite

By Rob Breeding

A friend told me the other day that she’s seeing owls everywhere this winter. She’s not sure what type, though she suspects they are great horned owls. They’re definitely BGOs (big gray owls), but that doesn’t mean they are the species specifically named the great gray owl.

No owl is a huge fan of humans, but great grays may be more comfortable around people than other species, at least that’s what Dan Casey, a longtime FWP biologist who has been in the middle of just about anything that has to do with Flathead birds for, basically, ever, told me. He’s currently working for Ducks Unlimited as a coordinator on the Northern Great Plains Joint Venture, a grassland conservation effort.

Casey recalls a great gray that took up residence along the Bigfork cutoff many years ago and became something of a local celebrity, including write-ups in the newspaper. Unfortunately, that owl put a talon wrong on a power line and was electrocuted. The great gray is now mounted and on display in the Kalispell FWP office.

I used to regularly spot a great gray on my walks along the Bitterroot River during my Hamilton days. I had a regular route and that owl was often there, sitting in a ponderosa, and allowed me to get remarkably close. In fact, I never learned the limit of its tolerance. The path took me close enough for a good look without spooking the bird.

Grays are fairly common in Montana, and appear to be the largest of the western owls, but that’s a lot of fluff. Grays are a bit like George Constanza in the puffy coat episode of Seinfeld. They are all downy insulation. Grays are taller and have a wingspan that exceeds that of the great horned owl, but can be 30 percent lighter.

The great horned is the big owl you’re most likely to run across in much of the country. They live year round in every state other than Hawaii, and the ears — tufts of feathers actually — make them immediately recognizable. But if you don’t get a good look at your big owl, the call is also a giveaway. The gray’s call is a simple “hoo, hoo, hoo,” while the more rhythmically complex horned owl sounds something like “hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo.”

Speaking of ears, they are not at the top of the head beneath the great horned’s tufts. Owl ears are on the sides of the head, and unlike human ears — a species for which facial symmetry is considered a highly desirable trait in a mating partner — owl ears are cattywampus. One is placed higher on the head than the other, and that difference means it takes sounds slightly longer to reach each audio receptor. Owls triangulate sounds by moving their heads until the waves arrive at each ear simultaneously, at which point the bird of prey is looking directly at the source.

Owls have worked their way into the psyche of humans, but that’s not surprising. There’s the plaintive, prescient call, heard mostly at night. Night is a time of mystery and fear for a diurnal species with an over-active imagination like humans. And there’s also that look, those all-knowing eyes and that dished face that helps direct sound to the crooked ears.

The Greeks thought owls were a protector of armies at war, but the Romans, Aztecs and Mayans all feared owls and considered them omens of death. That ominous reputation persists, though it’s just an artifact of our fear of the dark.

As far as birds go, owls are just about my favorite, and I think there may be something to our superstition. When I hear an owl hooting, I think it is telling me something.

Owl calls remind me how lucky I am to hear their beautiful song of the night.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.

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