An Evening of Owls

by Rex Burress

You can pick out any subject of nature and, if you pursue it sufficiently, you can be awed by the wonder of it all. Thus it was that the Chico Creek Nature Center in Chico, California, sponsored their annual "Owl Prowl," a benefit rally using the subject of owls to expand upon the evening. Not only did they offer a climax of dessert, but also extensive information supplied by two prominent naturalists, Scott Torricelli and Marilyn Gamette.

      Scott's in-depth look at owl anatomy was supplemented by the Owl Prowl into the depths of Bidwell Park's darkness. Our prowl party of a couple dozen realized from those lessons that the creature of our quest had exceptional sensory adaptations enabling it to be acutely aware of those clumsy two-footers on the ground.

      Scott's information also indicated that owls have extremely soft-edged feathers allowing them to fly noiselessly. In spite of a ferocious demeanor and wickedly sharp talons and beak, owls are mostly feathers they can fluff up to make them appear much larger. An adult Great Horned Owl weighs only about three pounds.

      The "horns," by the way, are merely feathers they are able to control, and no visible ears exist although they have keen hearing. Two ear cavities, one lower and larger than the other, are placed on each side of the head, and the feathers can be drawn into a funnel shape exposing the cavity. Scott asked, "Why do you think one ear is higher than the other." A six-year old provided a practical answer; "so its sunglasses can be crooked." Although the correct answer was lost in uproarious laughter, it has something to do with triangulation in locating sounds.

      Marilyn's live owl demonstration was quite impressive. There is nothing like a live animal to attain attention - especially one that is in a box and brought out in all its living glory. When the story is told about the animal's predicament - often the victim of accidental falls from the nest, or parental tragedy - a great deal of sympathy centers on the unfortunate.

      Much of that misfortune is created by well-meaning but misinformed individuals who try to rescue apparently abandoned babies. Every spring is a parade of people bringing baby animals to nature centers in the belief the cute youngsters are lost. The advice is always to leave it alone. There are some city dilemmas when babies are threatened by traffic or cats, but in the wild, parents are usually still caring for their fledgling or wandering offspring. A wild baby severed from its habitat and diet usually ends up dying - unless an expert like Marilyn extends countless hours in feeding and care - a rehabilitation effort rampant with pitfalls.

      Marilyn was attending two baby owls and an adult Great Horned Owl that had lost part of its wing. "A bird without a wing is not a complete bird," as veterinarian Dr. Harris of Montclair, California, said, and those kept in captivity can be a multi-year project requiring a great outlay of mousy meat. It can be justified in a Nature Center's zoo where environmental education can be utilized if you can convince animal activists that it is proper. Even in eventual release situations, you can be stuck for as much as four months of daily feeding. The yearly cycle of problem animals was a regular scenario when I worked at Oakland's Rotary Nature Center, and I'm sure the show - the never-ending-story - goes on with Stephanie Benavidez and her staff of gallant devotees to the cause of animal welfare and nature interpretation.

      The Bidwell Park Owl Prowl produced no owls in the twilight, although an old nest site was found and an owl pellet. In case you don't know, an owl pellet is a lump of hair, fur, and bone - prey leftovers the owl coughs out after digestion. Actually, as Marilyn mentioned, other birds also cough out indigestible matter, but birds of prey do it most often.

      In the Wildlife Area of Oroville's Afterbay, John Grow, who patrols Wood Duck boxes, found a Great Horned Owl nest in a cottonwood near one of his wooden shelters. We went there to photograph the youngsters peeking over the edge of the adopted hawk nest, and there was a motley collection of owl pellets littered on the ground. Even at that age, you could see those wondrously large eyes of those baby owls, physical assets that indeed allow them to see with exceptional efficiency.

© 2002 Rex Burress
May 20, 2002