Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Reporting Owls

Pheasant Branch Barred Owl

The first wild owl I ever encountered was a Great Horned Owl at Pheasant Branch Conservancy sometime in the early 1990s. I recall the experience lifting me into pure awe at the bird's majestic and stoic appearance as it leered down at me from its perch. Twenty years and thousands of conservancy visits later, I have a pretty good idea where most of the owls there spend their time. An attentive and mindful walk through the woods can reveal much!

There are at least three pairs of resident Great Horned Owls and two pairs of Barred Owls at the conservancy. It's quite possible there are more. Even non-birders often see owls along the 2-mile creek corridor trail. There are also migratory owls that spend just a short time at the conservancy, perhaps a week, or only a day or two. Over the years I've observed Long-eared Owls on a couple of occasions, but only one Short-eared Owl. About a decade ago, the conservancy was briefly visited by a Snowy Owl. It wasn't until last fall that I finally saw Northern Saw-whet Owl near the Conservancy Condos. I'm aware of two Eastern Screech Owl reports, but I have never heard or seen one there. The apparent shortage of screech owls may be due to the population density of larger owls that would likely eat them.

I no longer consider an encounter with an owl a rare experience, but each observation is still special in one facet or another. Sometimes I'll observe a new behavior, like the time I visited the conservancy late one night and watched a Barred Owl hunting for fish along the creek corridor. Another time I took a short video of a young Barred Owl wetting its whistle. I mean, of course they drink – but to actually see it! I especially like finding the same individual owls over the years. As such, I've grown a little protective of these wild creatures. Naturally, they don't belong to me, or anyone else; I view them as free wild beings that can take care of themselves.

The reason I don't usually share locations of owl nesting or roosting sites is because of the bad apples out there. I know from experience that most people who stumble upon an owl in the wild will treat it with the respect it deserves. However, I also know there are people who cannot be trusted around owls. In the context of birding ethics, owls seem to make people do crazy things. They'll approach too closely, break posted conservancy rules, or even bait owls with live animals in order to get photographs; they let their personal interests override the impact they may have on the bird's welfare, or even risk injury to themselves. In fact, there have been at least two owl attacks on people at the conservancy over the past decade. It's rare, but it does happen.

On the other hand, an owl in a public park or conservancy often plays the role of educational ambassador, which gets more people interested in the lives of birds or birding as a hobby. I recall the Middleton Great Gray Owl earlier this year, and the creek corridor Barred Owls feeding their young in plain view in April and May. But even during these wonderful educational opportunities, there were moments of disappointing behavior on behalf of onlookers and photographers. Each owl encounter has to be carefully weighed and considered for the owl's welfare. To share, or not to share – that is the question. Some nesting sites are not reused or are safely beyond human the range of interference. On the other hand, some roosting sites may be more prone to abandonment by the owl (or owls) after repeated disturbances.

Sometimes when I include a photograph of an owl in my posts, someone will write asking me for the location of the bird. If it's an established roosting site I feel is susceptible to disturbance, I can't in good conscience reveal the location. All I can advise is that if you go for a walk in just about any woods in the Madison area, there's a pretty good chance you're very close to an owl. They're even easier to find this time of year now that the trees have shed their leaves.

Barred Owl © 2013 Mike McDowell


  1. Excellent thoughts!... owls are among my favorites as well... I don't even know how Barred Owls pull off such beauty and majesty with mere brown, gray, and white to work with, but they do (and their white fluffy offspring are cute in the extreme)!