Just for the birds: The owls of Idaho Part IV – Idaho Press-Tribune

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Great horned owl with northern flicker by Terry Rich.
Short-eared owl by Robert Miller.
Short-eared owl by Krispen Hartung.
Young great horned owl by Ceredig Roberts.
Terry Rich
Great horned owl with northern flicker by Terry Rich.
Short-eared owl by Robert Miller.
Short-eared owl by Krispen Hartung.
Young great horned owl by Ceredig Roberts.
Terry Rich

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As we work through the 14 species of owls in Idaho, I decided to address them in the order of commonness based on my own experience. Last time, I covered burrowing owls, a species that I have seen far more than any other, in part, because I studied them in the Shoshone area in the early ‘80s.
The next one in line is a tough call among great horned owl, short-eared owl, and barred owl. Barred owl wouldn’t be on this list based on my time in Idaho. But I grew up in Wisconsin where this species was more commonly seen than any other. So, I’m going with great horned owl. This is probably the species most often seen by people in the Treasure Valley. Many pairs nest in our area, and it seems that many/most of the nest sites are known. When you are quite large, and then have several large young, it’s hard to hide after a while. This species is classified as a common resident statewide by the Birds of Idaho Field Checklist.
The great horned owls most familiar to me are the pair that nest near the Foothills Learning Center (FLC). They can be reliably found every day during the nesting season, and then for many weeks after the young fledge. At other times of the year, you might find one or more by carefully searching the trees in the area.
I am routinely informed by those attending my classes at FLC about nests in the North End, along the Boise River, on The Bench, and elsewhere in the Boise area. A lot of these nests are well known, and my birding friends seem surprised that I don’t know every one of them. Maybe a nest tour should be arranged. That would be fun! On the other hand, I don’t want to stress the birds more than they already are.
My favorite recent sighting of a great horned owl was a bird exchanging hoots with another bird (out of sight) at the City of Rock National Reserve this fall. I was out of my tent at first light when one bird appeared on top of a large rock against the eastern sky. I learned that my autofocus does not work under those conditions. By the time I got manual focus engaged, the bird had left. You snooze, you lose. I made coffee with my backpack stove, settled into my camp chair, and awaited a return opportunity. I didn’t get it. But no complaints. That bird silhouetted against the early sky is well imprinted in my brain.
One more personal experience with the Flying Tiger. Years ago, we were having an evening social event in Municipal Park after a day meeting with Partners in Flight. Just after sunset, we heard a cat yowling, and it sounded like it was coming from up in one of the large cottonwood trees in the park. Before long, we actually saw a great horned owl carrying a small cat from one tree to another. This is a horrifying image. We’ve had one or more cats in our house for nearly 50 years, and I did not like what I was seeing. But the plain fact is that cats outdoors are at risk, not only from these birds but also from coyotes and vehicles. Every time I see a sign on a telephone pole about a missing cat, that experience comes to mind. Keep your cats in the house.
I’m always impressed by large species that manage to survive and even flourish in the midst of dense human populations. These include mule deer, Canada geese, and great horned owls. Large individuals need a lot of food to survive. Deer and geese are largely vegetarians, and around here there are plenty of plants. But great horned owls aren’t fond of urban shrubbery or golf course grass.
According to Birds of the World, this species takes, “rabbits and hares, pocket gophers, mice and voles, and coots and other waterfowl.” Due to their size, I’m sure a rabbit is a much better find than a mouse. They swallow small prey items whole and tear larger items into pieces before eating. There is at least one record of this owl taking a great blue heron. Yikes! Like other species of owls, they will store prey in the nest during times of abundant prey. There is another record of a nest with a dozen showshoe hares stashed for later. New World vultures, not owls, are the main group with a sense of smell. That’s certainly a blessing here.
One final testament to the success of this beautiful predator is its range. Great horned owls are found from northern Canada to the tip of South America. They are notably missing only from the High Arctic, alpine zones, and the Amazon Basin. Breeding Bird Survey data suggest that populations in North America have been stable since at least 1966. Well done.
Third in my personal list of owls I have seen more than others is the short-eared owl. Because this species is at least partly diurnal or, better, crepuscular, you can see them over marshes and some sagebrush habitats while you yourself can still see. For me these owls are especially stunning because of the way they fly. They look like giant moths, defying gravity with their deep and deliberate wing swoops. Amazing. And perching on a fence post in the midst of a sinking fence line in the middle of nowhere, they seem to rule the world, realizing that all the mist and swampiness around them is theirs. You want to walk out here? You want to drive out here? I suggest, don’t do it.
In an earlier column, I recounted my experience with this owl near Craters of the Moon, a bird with eleven eggs and then eleven young under a large sagebrush plant. When you near a nest of this owl, they fly up and around, giving a characteristic call. I continue on quickly, hoping not to disturb this bird and this nest more than I already have. It would be nice to get photos, but it’s much more important to leave them alone. I apologize for blundering into their space.
Back to my Wisconsin roots. One January day we were hiking around Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. It was well below zero, there was about 6 inches of snow on the ground, and I had on all my serious winter gear. That included long johns, knee-high wool socks, Sorel pacs, a ¾-length Eddie Bauer down parka, a double-layered wool stocking cap, and leather mittens with wool liners. I needed all of it. I had one last line of defense — a wool balaclava — but there was no wind so that remained in my daypack.
After sundown, as we were headed back to our car, which we all hoped would start, we encountered a group of short-eared owls apparently heading into a roost in a dense cattail patch surrounded by small saplings. The owls swirled around like giant pale bats, as the dying sunlight backlit the scene. Ice fog softened what light was left. I was carried away by their beauty, and that image is also fused into my memories.
This is one of the most widely distributed owls in the world, breeding across the Northern Hemisphere and migrating south for winter. It is also resident in southern South America and in several other places. I have loved seeing them here and there across the Great Basin. They need tall grass or tall sagebrush (or both) for nest sites, and these can often be found around wetlands or small spring areas in the otherwise dry habitats of the Intermountain West. They often have sandhill cranes, northern harriers, and red-winged or Brewer’s blackbirds for neighbors.
Partners in Flight classifies the short-eared owl as a “Common Bird in Steep Decline.” It does not exhibit the broad vulnerability that would otherwise land it on a Watch List, partly because of its enormous breeding range. But their populations have declined in North America by an estimated 50% or more since 1970.
There are a number of short-eared owl monitoring programs around North America, seeking to more closely track population trends and to discover causes of decline. One such program is run by the Intermountain Bird Observatory right here in Boise. WAfLS (Western Asio flammeus Landscape Study) is a citizen-science project designed to better evaluate the population status of the short-eared owl in the western U.S.
WAfLS is now morphing into a more focused study called ROAM – Reducing Owl Agricultural Mortality. Data from WAfLS showed that this species has a high affinity for alfalfa fields for nesting. When that alfalfa is harvested prior to the young hatching and dispersing, you end up with catastrophic mortality.
The goals of ROAM are to evaluate the usefulness of using thermal imaging drone technology to find nests prior to alfalfa harvest, and to evaluate various nest protection mechanisms. This is a citizen science project, and you can contribute! See the ROAM website: boisestate.edu.
We have owl ornaments on our Christmas tree, owl art around the house, owl t-shirts, and owl Christmas cards. Just a few more owl things, and we’ll be all set. Probably.
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