Neltje Blanchan.

Birds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls online

. (page 27 of 29)
Online LibraryNeltje BlanchanBirds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls → online text (page 27 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

eggs are dropped, could be honored with such a name. From five
to eleven pure dull white eggs, more decidedly pointed than those
of most owls, are incubated by both mates, sometimes by both at
once, as they sit huddled together through the hours of unwel-
come sunshine. They can scarcely multiply too fast. /The barn
owl does not eat poultry, although it is constantly shot because
of an unfounded belief that it does, prevalent among farmers.
From an economic standpoint, it would be difficult to name a
more valuable bird.



(Family f Bubonidce)

American Long-eared Owl

(Asio wilsonianus)
Called also: CAT OWL

Length 14 to 1 6 inches; female the larger.

Male and Female Conspicuous blackish ear tufts bordered by
white and buff; upper parts dusky brown, finely mottled
with ash and dull orange; facial disk pale reddish brown
with darker inner circle and yellow eyes; under parts mixed
white and buff, the breast with long brown stripes, the sides
and underneath irregularly barred with dusky ; dark broken
bands on wings and tail; legs and feet completely feathered;
bill and claws blackish.

Range Temperate North America; nesting throughout its range.

Season Permanent resident.

A strictly nocturnal prowler, unlike its short-eared relative
that hunts much by day, the long-eared owl keeps concealed
through the hours of sunshine in the woods, the alder swamps,
or high, dry, shady undergrowth, giving no hint by sign or
sound of its hiding place. Come upon one suddenly, and by
pressing its feathers close to its body, erecting its ear tufts, and
sitting erect, it doubtless hopes to be overlooked as a part of the
weather-beaten tree on which it is perching, since its thick,
downy, mottled plumage might readily be mistaken for rough
bark; but as it blinks its staring eyes knowingly, it looks amus-
ingly like a mischievous, round-faced joker, half bird, half
human. It is not easily frightened away, and is ever peaceably
disposed. To look formidable when liberties are taken with it,
it may ruffle up its feathers until its circumference is doubled ; but
nothing happens, unless it be a noiseless gliding off among the
trees to another perch.

22 337

Horned and Hoot Owls

At nightfall, it flies with almost uncanny softness, skimming
along the ground, exploring leafy avenues and grassy meadows
and swamps; its wide, staring eyes, immovably fixed in the
sockets, scanning the hunting ground, as the head, inclined down-
ward, turns now this way, now that. Shy, skulking mice,
pounced upon unawares by the silent prowler, other small mam-
mals, and very rarely a bird, are carried off in the talons, to be
devoured at leisure. Like other owls, this species flies slowly
and almost uncertainly, but with a buoyancy that gives no sug-
gestion of effort.

About three-fourths of all nests reported are those built by
crows and afterward permanently appropriated by the cat owl.
It almost never builds for itself; even a squirrel's nest is prefer-
able to one of its own construction. Three to six white eggs
require about three weeks of close incubation.

It is chiefly at the nesting season that these usually silent
birds lift up their voices. "When at ease and not molested,"
says Captain Bendire, "the few notes which I have heard them
utter are low toned and rather pleasing than otherwise. One of
these is a soft-toned wu-hunk, wu-hunk, slowly and several
times repeated. . . . Another is a low, twittering, whistling
note, like dicky, dicky, dicky, quite different from anything usu-
ally expected from the owl family. In the early spring they hoot
somewhat like a screech owl, and may often be heard on a still
evening; but their notes are more subdued than those of the lat-
ter." The most common cry of the long-eared owl, the one
that has given it its popular name, is. a prolonged me-ow-ow-ow,
so like a cat's cry that it would seem folly for a bird that lives
chiefly on mice to utter it.

Short-Eared Owl

(Asio accipitrinus)


Length 14 to 17 inches ; female the larger.

Male and Female Ear tufts inconspicuous ; face disk white, or
nearly so, minutely speckled with blackish, and with large
black eye patches and yellow eyes ; upper parts dusky brown,


Horned and Hoot Owls

the feathers margined with yellow ; under parts whitish or
buff, the breast broadly streaked, never mottled, with brown,
and underneath more finely and sparingly streaked ; tail
barred with buff and dusky bands of equal width. Bill and
claws dusky blue black; legs feathered with buff.

-Range Nearly cosmopolitan ; throughout North America, and
nesting from Virginia northward.

Season Chiefly a migratory visitor ; April, November ; also a
resident in many sections.

Here is an owl that breaks through several family traditions,
for it does not live in woods, neither does it confine its hunting
excursions to the dark hours; but, living in the marshes or grassy
meadows, it flies abroad much by day, especially in cloudy
weather, after two o'clock in the afternoon, as v ell as at night.
Another unconventional trait it has : it makes its nest of hay and
sticks on the ground instead of in hollow trees or upper parts
of buildings; and one nest that contained six white eggs, dis-
covered in a lonely marsh where the least bittern was the owl's ,
nearest neighbor, was in a tussock quite surrounded by water.
The bittern, that misanthropic recluse, springing into the air,
was off at once, dangling its legs behind it ; whereas the marsh
owl, that is not at all shy, simply stared and blinked, with a half
human expression of wonder on its face, until the intruder became
too impertinent and lifted it off its nest. Even then it did
nothing more spiteful than to sharply click its bill as it circled
about just overhead. Yet there seems to be a popular impression
that this owl is fierce. Even Nuttall has said it will attack a
man ! In the west the burrows of ground squirrels and rabbits or
the hole of a muskrat have been utilized, since none of the owls
is overscrupulous about appropriating other creatures' homes,
however much attached a pair may become to a spot that
has once cradled their brood. " As useless as a last year's nest "
can have no meaning to owls. Still another peculiarity of this owl
is that it is almost never seen to alight on a tree; the ground is its
usual resting place, a stump or knoll a high enough point of van-
tage. Mice, gophers, and insects of various kinds, which are its
food, keep this hunter close to earth ; and as it flies low, and does
not take to wing until fairly stepped on, it encourages close
acquaintance, thereby earning a reputation for being the most
abundant species in the United States. Its alleged superiority of


Horned and Hoot Owls

numbers may also be accounted for by the fact that during the
migrations it is sometimes found in flocks numbering a hundred.
Aside from a quavering, mouse-like squeak, the marsh owl
apparently makes no sound. Its flight is positively uncanny in
its silence. Like the barn and the long-eared owls, this invalu-
able ally earns the fullest protection from the farmers.

Barred Owl

(Syrnium nebulosum)

Called also: HOOT OWL; WOOD OWL

Length 18 to 20 inches ; female the larger.

Male and Female Upper parts grayish brown, each feather with
two or three white or buff bars ; facial disk gray, finely
barred or mottled with dusky ; eyes bluish black, and bill yel-
low; under parts white washed with buff; the breast barred;
the sides and underneath streaked with dusky ; legs and feet
feathered to nails ; wings and tail barred with brown ; no
ear tufts.

Range Eastern United States to Nova Scotia and Manitoba; west
to Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas ; nesting through-
out range.

Season Permanent resident.

Whoo-whoo-too-whoo-too-o-o, with endless variation, a deep
toned, guttural, weird, startling sound, and haw-haw-hoo-hoo,
like a coarse, mocking laugh, come from the noisy hoot owl be-
tween dusk and midnight, rarely at sunrise, more rarely still by
day, sometimes from a solitary hooter, sometimes in a duet
sung out of time. Every one knows the hoot. One hears it
most frequently at the nesting season. Once in a very great
while this owl gives a shriek to make one's blood curdle. Many
of us have attracted the bird by imitating its notes. Because
the voice of the great horned owl, that "tiger among birds,"
is so like it, the barred owl is credited with its larger kinsman's
atrocities and shot. Its owp talons are not wholly guiltless of
innocent blood, to be sure, since out of one hundred and nine
stomachs examined by Dr. Fisher for the Department of Agri-
culture, five contained young poultry or game, and thirteen other
birds ; but over one-third contained mice and other small mam-


Horned and Hoot Owls

mals ; frogs, fish, lizards, and insects filled the remainder, which
goes to prove that, in spite of the average farmer's belief to
the contrary, this owl renders him positive service. To see the
barred owl is to identify it at once by its smooth, bland, almost
human face, its mild blue black eyes, and the absence of horns
from its round head.

Woods, waysides, and sheltered farms are the barred owl's
hunting grounds; and because it so frequently lodges through the
sunny hours in hay lofts and stacks, many people call it the barn
owl, a name which should be discouraged by disuse to save the
endless confusion arising by the application of the same popular
name to two or more different species. True barn owls are not
only a distinct species, but constitute a separate family. The un-
earthly, weird voices of several owls make each one indifferently
a "hoot owl" to the average listener.

In February, the barred owl loses his unsocial, hermit-like in-
stinct, and for his mate's society, at least, shows a devoted prefer-
ence. The pair go about looking for a natural cavity in a tree in
dense or swampy woods; but that failing them, they unscrupu-
lously take possession of a hawk's or crow's nest, tenaciously
holding it year after year, as all owls do their homes. They rarely
build a nest of their own, or take pains to line a cavity or to alter
an appropriated tenement unless it should need repairs. Mr. C.
L. Rawson has found a set of eggs lying on a solid cake of ice
near Norwich, Conn., so early is the nesting done. A camera
can take no more amusing picture than a group of owlets perch-
ing on a naked limb near their cradle, their downy feathers
ruffled by the March wind, a surprised, comical expression on
their faces, their bodies closely huddled together to save warmth.

The Great Gray, or Spectral Owl (Scotiaptex cinereum), the
largest owl in the world, is dusky, mottled with white on its up-
per parts, and the white under parts are broadly streaked on the
breast, and on the sides and underneath irregularly barred and
streaked with dusky. It has no ear tufts ; its legs and feet are
heavily feathered, and both bill and eyes are yellow. It is a very
rare visitor from the far north, and as it keeps to dense woods,
few bird students have been so fortunate as Dr. Dall, who has
caught it in his hands. He declares it is " a stupid bird." No
owl that is heavy with sleep while humans are wide awake is

Horned and Hoot Owls

credited with great cleverness, and modern ornithologists con-
sider that Minerva made a mistake when she chose the owl to
typify that wisdom for which she was revered.

Saw-Whet Owl

(Nyctala acadia)

Called also: ACADIAN OWL

Length 7. 50 to 8 inches ; smallest of the eastern owls.

Male and Female Upper parts dark reddish brown, the head
streaked, the back and wings spotted with light brown and
white ; under parts white, heavily streaked with dark rusty
brown; tail with three or four broken white bars; facial disk
almost white, but blackened around the yellow eyes; legs
buff feathered ; no ear tufts ; bill and claws dark.

Range North America at large, nesting from the middle states
northward, and in western mountainous regions south to

Season Chiefly a winter visitor in middle states ; locally a per-
manent resident.

Birds that prey on skulking mice must needs be night
prowlers; but the theory has been seriously advanced that those
owls which remain in sleepy seclusion all day, like the little saw-
whet owl, are those that have suffered endless persecution from
other birds whenever they ventured abroad in the sunlight, which
is the reason they choose to hunt when others sleep an interest-
ing theory, if nothing more. Nocturnal birds are naturally
counted rarities, even where they are not. This little owl, by no
means uncommon, is a very sound sleeper, and makes no sign
of its existence, though one may be passing beneath its perch.
So sunk in oblivion is it, and so heavy-eyed with sleep when
roused, that many specimens may be taken with the hand.
Hence the expression, "As stupid as an owl." Because it is
small enough to crowd on a woman's hat, this is a little victim
commonly worn, sometimes with wings and tail outspread, or
again with only its head, like a Cheshire cat's, appearing in a
cloud of trimming. A woman who loudly applauded Dr. Van
Dyke's famous epigram, " A bird in the bush is worth two in the
hat," at an Audubon Society's meeting held in the Museum of


8 T Life-size.

Horned and Hoot Owls

Natural History, New York, in the winter of 1898, had the entire
plumage of a saw- whet owl spread over her turban ! At this
same meeting another woman with self-righteous superiority
was overhead boasting that she never wore birds, only wings, in
her hats!

Saw-whet, saw-whet, the love notes of this owl, most fre-
quently heard in March and April, have a rasping quality like
the sound heard in a mill when the file is sharpening the teeth of
a saw ; not an agreeable noise, perhaps, yet because of the ven-
triloqual power of the bird's voice, and at the distance we think
we hear it, it has a certain fascination.

Dense woodlands, particularly evergreen forests, for it dearly
loves a dark retreat, are where the owl passes its days ; coming
out at night, when its flight, surprisingly like a woodcock's, has
deceived others than Dr. Fisher into making a worse than wasted
shot. Since it feeds almost exclusively on mice and insects, it is
folly to destroy so valuable a bird. Mr. Nelson says that a dozen
specimens have been taken in the most frequented streets in the
residence portion of Chicago within two years.

The majority of nests recorded have been deserted wood-
pecker's holes, some in squirrel's excavations, most of them near
water, a few in stumps; but very rarely do the saw- whet owls
appropriate an open nest, and more rarely still build one of their

Screech Owl

(Megascops asio)


Length 8. 50 to 9. 50 inches.

Male and Female Brmvnish red phase: Upper parts rusty red,
finely streaked with blackish brown and mottled with light
brown; under parts whitish or buff, the feathers centrally
streaked with black and with irregular rusty bars. Eyes
yellow legs and feet covered with short feathers; prominent
ear tufts. Gray phase: Upper parts ashen gray streaked
with black and finely mottled with yellow; under parts
white, finely streaked and barred irregularly with black, more

Horned and Hoot Owls

or less bordered with rusty. Immature birds have entire
plumage regularly barred with rusty, gray, and white.

Range Eastern North America.

Season Permanent resident.

Why this little owl should wear such freaky plumage, rusty
red one time, mottled gray and black another, without reference
to age, sex, or season, is one of the bird mysteries awaiting solu-
tion. Frequently birds of the same brood will be wearing differ-
ent feathers. In the transition from one phase to another, many
variations of color and markings appear; but however clothed,
we may certainly know the little screech owl by its prominent
ear tufts or horns, taken in connection with its small size. Like
the little saw-whet owl, which, however, wears no horns, people
who live in cities are most familiar with it on women's hats, worn
entire or cut up in sections.

A weird, melancholy, whistled tremulo from under our very
windows startles us, as the uncanny voices of all owls do,, however
familiar we may be with the little screecher. Are any super-
stitions more absurd than those associated with these harmless
birds ? Because it makes its home so near ours, often in some
crevice of them, in fact, in the hollow of a tree in the orchard,
or around the barn lofts, this is probably the most familiar owl to
the majority of Canadians and Americans. It keeps closely con-
cealed by day, often in a dense evergreen or in its favorite hollow;
and except for the persecutions of the blue jay, that takes a mis-
chievous delight in routing it from its nap and driving it abroad
for all the saucy birds in the orchard to pursue and peck at, we
should never know of its presence. In the early spring especially
it lifts up its voice too doleful a love song to be effective, one
would think ; yet the screecher's mate apparently considers it
entrancing, since she remains mated for life. In the southern and
central portions of its range, nesting begins in March ; in the New
England and northern parts some time between the middle of
April and the first of May. A natural cavity in a hollow tree, or an
abandoned woodpecker's hole are favorite nooks, and boxes nailed
up under the dark eaves of outbuildings on the farm or in dense
evergreen trees where light cannot strike the owl's sensitive eyes,
have been promptly appropriated in many instances.

It is generally known that all owls go through some strange


Horned and Hoot Owls

performances to woo their mates, but few have been so fortunate
as Mr. Lynds Jones, who watched a pair of screech owls mating.
"The female was perched in a dark, leafy tree," he says, "appar-
ently oblivious of the presence of her mate, who made frantic
efforts, through a series of bowings, wing-raisings, and snappings,
to attract her attention. Those antics were continued for some
time, varied by hops from branch to branch near her, accompanied
by that forlorn, almost despairing wink peculiar to this bird.
Once or twice I thought I detected sounds of inward groanings,
as he, beside himself with his unsuccessful approaches, sat in
utter dejection. At last his mistress lowered her haughty head."
When hunting, the owl moves like a shadow, so silently
does it pass in the darkness. Insects, cut worms, and mice are
what it is ever seeking ; but sharp hunger in winter has sometimes
led it into butchery of little birds. Of two hundred and fifty-five
stomachs of screech owls examined by Dr. Fisher for the Depart-
ment of Agriculture, one hundred contained insects; ninety-one,
mice; thirty-eight, birds ; eleven, other mammals than mice; nine,
crawfish; seven, miscellaneous food; five, spiders; four, batra-
chians; two, lizards; two, scorpions; two, earth worms; one,
poultry; one, fish; and forty-three were empty. Why in the
name of all that is economic and humane, should this valuable
ally of the farmer be so persistently shot ?

Great Horned Owl

(Bubo virginianus)

Called also: HOOT OWL; CAT OWL

Length Male 19 to 23 inches; female 21 to 26 inches.

Male and Female Long ear tufts ; upper parts variegated brown,

tawny, pale buff, and white; facial disk buff; eyes yellow;

throat white ; under parts buff or whitish, finely barred with

black ; legs and feet feathered.
Xange Eastern North America, west to the Mississippi, and from

Labrador to Costa Rica.
Season Permanent resident.

The lord high executioner of the owl tribe, remaining a per-
manent resident, except at the extreme northern limit of his range,


Horned and Hoot Owls

does more damage than all other species put together. Although
actually shorter than the great gray and snowy owls, his ponder-
ous body gives him more impressive size and power, earned
through constant exercise of savage instincts. No one ever finds
this hunter in poor condition ; diligent and overpowering in the
chase, he feasts where others starve, bringing down upon the
innocent heads of several members of his tribe the punishment
of sins of his commission by undiscriminating farmers. Only the
sharp-shinned, the Cooper's hawk, and the goshawk among the
birds of prey can show a bloodier record.

By day this "tiger among birds" keeps concealed in the
woods, particularly among evergreens near water, in cloudy
weather sometimes sallying forth for food, but generally not
until dusk; then, with uncanny silence and hawklike swiftness
of flight, he begins his nefarious work. Chickens, ducks, geese,
turkeys, and pigeons on the farm will be decapitated if too large
to eat entire, for the brains of victims are the tid-bits this
executioner delights in. Dr. Hart Merriam tells of one of these
owls that took the heads off three turkeys and several chickens
in a single night, leaving their bodies uninjured and fit for the
table. Coops and dove cots are boldly entered; entire coveys
of Bob Whites destroyed; grouse, woodcock, water-fowl, and
snipe know no more relentless enemy; song birds do not escape
the stealthy murderer that picks them from the perch as they
sleep; and all the rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, and other mam-
mals eaten cannot offset the valuable birds destroyed.

A piercing scream as of a woman being strangled, the most
blood-curdling sound heard in the woods, a rare but all too
frequent sound, is a fitting vocal expression of a character so

"Silence, ye wolves ! while Ralph to Cynthia howls
And makes night hideous ; answer him, ye owls."

A deep-toned to-whoo-hoo-hoo, to-whoo-whoo, as of a hound
baying in the distance, louder than the barred owl's hoot, and
the syllables all on one note, is the sound so familiar as to scarcely
need description. Like all owls, this one seems particularly at-
tracted by the camp-fire, and every sportsman knows how
dismally it punctuates the silence of the woods.

Unsocial, solitary, except at the nesting season, unapproach-

s /7 Life-size.

Horned and Hoot Owls

able by men, unlike several of his kin that may be taken in the
hand when sleeping, the great horned owl gives one little oppor-
tunity for close acquaintance in his wild state, and because he
is an irreclaimable savage in captivity few keep him caged.
With eyes closed so as to leave only a crack to peek through,
one might think he did not see the intruder; but go to right or
left, and the head turns around so far to note every step that it
must seemingly drop off. All owls have eyes immovably fixed
in the sockets, which is the reason they must almost wring
their necks when they attempt to look around. The large, yellow
iris of this owl is capable of extraordinary contraction ; but before
you can fairly see its interesting operations, the great bird spreads
his wings and moves through the trees with the silence of a
shadow of a passing cloud.

In February, when the nesting season begins for it is sup-
posed this owl breaks the family rule and does not remain mated
for life he singles out some sweetheart, always larger and more
formidable than himself, and undertakes the difficult task of
wooing her. At first remaining an indifferent spectator of his
ludicrous leaps and bounds on the earth and from tree to tree,
his eccentric evolutions in the air, and the rapid snappings of his
bill, she finally relents and goes house hunting with her attentive
escort. Hollow trees with entrance large enough for their bodies
are scarce; and when not to be found, an old crow's, hawk's, or
squirrel's nest is utilized. Two or three dull white eggs are laid
so early in the year that ice not infrequently makes them sterile,
in which case they simply contribute to the accumulation of
rubbish at the bottom of the nest, on which a new set is laid.
Oftentimes the nesting is over with in time to allow the rightful
owner of the cradle, or one of the larger hawks, to use it. A
careful observer tells of finding in a nest containing two young
owls "a mouse, a young muskrat, two eels, four bullheads, a
woodcock, four ruffed grouse, one rabbit, and eleven rats. The
food taken out of the nest weighed eighteen pounds. A curious
fact connected with these captives was that the heads were eaten
off, the bodies being untouched."


Horned and Hoot Owls

Snowy Owl

(Nyctea nyctea)

Length About 2 feet.

Online LibraryNeltje BlanchanBirds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls → online text (page 27 of 29)