Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #24

This Treasure is FAST: While internet searches may tell you that the Cheetah is the fastest animal on the planet, they are dead wrong. Today’s treasure can reach speeds faster than a moving Formula One race car. In fact, while in its spectacular dive, called a “stoop”, the Peregrine Falcon can reach speeds of up to 230 mph!

A Peregrine Falcon has two important needs … food, and a high place to live.

Body Designed for Hunting: Though no bigger than a crow, and weighing about 1½ lbs., a Peregrine (sometimes called a “Duck Hawk”) is the largest and most powerful species in the falcon family. It sports a blue-grey back, barred white underparts, a black head and a distinctive yellow circle around the eyes. Its pointed wings can span almost 4 feet and
allows it to leisurely cruise at speeds up to 67 mph. If you are wondering why Peregrines need to cruise at such high speeds … the answer is that they eat highly mobile birds and sometimes bats.

Peregrine hunts get serious when prey is spotted during the cruising phase. At that point the high speed “stoop” begins from a great height. Due to their velocity, Peregrine Falcons aim not to catch their prey but to stun it with a blow before grabbing it as it falls. This maneuver is critical, as a hunting Peregrine is travelling so fast that a direct strike on prey could injure the Falcon itself.

95bc8d78-6e25-4d81-84ee-de755ffa26b9The bodies of Peregrine Falcons have many adaptations for hunting at high speeds. For starters, the shape of the Peregrine in a stoop has been compared by many to the shape of the B2 bomber. In addition, their nostrils guide shock waves of air to prevent the high pressure from damaging their lungs while they dive. This natural design actually influenced the design of the first jet engines!

Peregrines also have excellent binocular vision, with resolution eight times better than that of humans, enabling them to see prey from more than a mile away. Like Owls, Peregrines have a third transparent eyelid. Its function is to spread tears and clear debris away, without obstructing vision during a high-speed stoop.

Four formidable yellow talons sport sharp, strongly curved toes. The Peregrine uses its large feet, with their powerful toes, to capture prey in the air or to knock it down. The final blow is then delivered when their unique notched beak bites through the neck of the prey to kill it. You can watch the whole hunt happening, in Rome … courtesy of David Attenborough.

Our many thanks to Thomas Kaestner for this wonderful photo of a Peregrine looking like a B2.
Digestion begins right after dinner and is a complex process involving storing food in a crop, then passing it through a two-part stomach; one section devoted to chemical breakdown of food (using acids and digestive juices) and one to mechanical breakdown of food (into smaller bits by grinding). The job of the intestinal tract is to absorb nutrients. Like owls, falcons regurgitate a pellet containing the undigestible body parts of what they have eaten. The pellet is not very recognizable because the falcon lacks the “garbage compactor” used by owls to produce a neat familiar package.

Home is a High Place: Because of the way Peregrines locate and hunt their prey, “hanging out” in high places makes a lot of sense. But they also nest in high places, such as cliffs up to 1300 feet high, choosing a ledge about a third of the way down the cliff face.

Female peregrine protecting her clutch on the James River Bridge in Virginia.Family Life: Mated for life, Peregrines return to their nest in February, to perform incredible courtship displays during which the male executes acrobatic aerial feats designed to woo his mate. He starts by suppling the female with food, often dropping it for her to catch mid-flight …. sometimes while she is flying upside down! She needs more food than he does, as is the case with many birds. This is because the female has greater body mass than the male. Some theories speculate that this dimorphism occurs so that she can produce larger eggs and easily incubate them.

Courting, completed in March or April is followed by nest building. This activity is minimal, merely a ritualized scraping of the nest ledge to create a depression in the sand, gravel or other substrate of the nest site. “Scrape” is the name given to this rudimentary nest. No additional materials are used to house the 3-4 eggs she will lay and incubate for about 30 days; during this period the male will provide her with food. After hatching, young falcons will rely on their parents for food until they fledge, and become fully independent; this juvenile  period lasts about 39 days.

6b0add7d-94c9-409b-ae09-e9ce5d52a1b0You Find Them Where? Remember the two things that Peregrines need, “food and a high place to live”? As it turns out this requirement can be met in some very unlikely settings. While cities are generally thought to be the complete antithesis of wildlife habitat, some species actually thrive in concrete jungles … and the Peregrine Falcon is one of them. They nest on window ledges of skyscrapers and feed on introduced species such as doves, pigeons, and ducks. Urban living thus meets the same needs as would the more natural setting of an ocean sea cliff!

As a result, there are falcons in many surprising places. For example, they have been welcomed and cherished for more than 25 years at the second tallest building in Seattle. And the most famous city of skyscrapers, the “Big Apple” may now have the largest urban population of Peregrine Falcons anywhere.  Not to be outdone by populations in New York City, Peregrines nest on every Hudson River bridge south of Albany, as well as on buildings and bridges in Syracuse, Rochester, Binghamton and Buffalo! These urban dwellers certainly live up to their name because both the English and scientific names of the species translates to “wandering falcon”. They also wander into More Mesa several times a year and have often been observed on the tall Eucalyptus trees near the coast. They are, if nothing else, extremely adaptable!

07d94cbe-05d3-4647-9b08-8f04dcbad3a2We Almost Lost Them Forever: Since the first half of the twentieth century, Peregrine Falcons have been exposed to dangerous threats that almost annihilated them. At first, they were heavily persecuted by gamekeepers and landowners, who were concerned about their stocks of game-birds. Then, during WW II, in a time before our digital world was even imagined, primitive methods of delivering messages were used. Specifically, thousands of Peregrines were also killed to protect the carrier pigeons carrying “important” military messages. After the war Peregrine numbers began to recover, and a full 10 years later, legislation finally outlawed their killing.

However, soon after this law was introduced, the numbers of many birds of prey, including Peregrines, began to plummet. Scientists eventually discovered the culprit to be agricultural pesticides … think DDT. This toxin, used to protect crops from insects, also poisoned birds, thinned their egg shells, killed developing embryos and pushed the Peregrine to the edge of extinction. (We had our own version of this nightmare with Bald Eagles on the Channel Islands.) DDT was eventually banned in 1972. This legislation, with additional large-scale protection of nesting places and releases into the wild, allowed the Peregrine to make a full recovery. Indeed, by 1999, President Clinton had the honor of announcing that, after being pushed nearly to the edge of extinction, Peregrines had been removed from the endangered species list. Today they are still listed as a “Bird of Special Concern”.

61cc888b-da57-4092-922e-f815bbf8fcdbFalconry has Been Around a Long Time: The recovery of North American Peregrines was greatly aided by the activities of falconers dedicated to raptor conservation. With the sport originating somewhere between the Near and Middle East, there is ample evidence that falconry has been practiced for at least 3,500 years, (While various groups through the ages have used raptors to catch birds, falconers use only falcons for this purpose.) Falconry also became especially popular with European nobility during the Middle Ages. Little has changed fundamentally in the sport — or, as some would argue — the art of falconry since the practice first began. Today, falconry continues in the same fashion as it began thousands of years ago. (You might even remember the use of falcons in an effort to discourage Western Gulls from invading the Oakland Baseball Stadium.) Finally, although subjected to shifting popularity and restrictions, interest in falconry continues, and the intense relationship between falconers and their birds remains extremely and mysteriously strong.
Stay safe … Valerie

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #22

22a view of mesaAnnual Audubon Christmas Bird Count: Some of you may have seen a recent article in the Montecito Journal on the 121st Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. This yearly winter event is North America’s longest-running citizen science bird project, with the data collected fueling Audubon’s work throughout the entire year. Data from the count is also shared with the scientific community, universities, wildlife groups, government agencies and the public. Although this year’s data are still being validated, you can get a sense of the size of this undertaking, by knowing that last year there were 62,000 Americans who participated in the count. These reporters submitted over 2000 observations.

Santa Barbara has played a major role in this important piece of “Citizen Science” for many decades. An area 15 miles in diameter is selected for all participants, with our count centered at the intersection of Highway 154 and Foothill Road. Now for the “drum roll” … Santa Barbara recorded 206 separate species … the 5th highest number of species in the nation! This record is even more astounding when you consider that we are being compared with places that are under giant flyways of migrating species.

What has all of this to do with More Mesa? We are both proud and excited to report that, More Mesa alone, contributed 24% of the species reported in Santa Barbara’s impressive total. This is especially impactful when you consider that More Mesa represents only 0.02% of the land in the 15-mile diameter count area!

22b road runner side

22c road runner cartoonRara Avis … a Rare Bird: This Treasure Hunt features a bird that has never been reported on More Mesa, until last Fall. It is the Greater Roadrunner; common in the Southwestern states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, but seen much less often in California. Roadrunner’s favorite habitats include deserts, brush and grasslands. Although somewhat rare, the Roadrunner is a species that most of us over age 50 met when we were kids; in the famous Roadrunner cartoons. This “Classic” cartoon series, introduced in 1949*, was written by Michael Maltese and animated by Chuck Jones. It ended in 1963 when Warner Brothers closed its Animation Studio.

*In a strange coincidence, the Roadrunner became the state bird of New Mexico the same year as the Roadrunner Cartoon was introduced.

For those who remember that far back, the cartoons featured Wile E. Coyote and a slender blue and purple Roadrunner. It is reported that the animator was inspired to create these characters from Mark Twain’s book “Roughin It”, in which Twain postulated that hungry coyotes could hunt roadrunners. With a shift of “who chases who”, the animator remained adamant that the cartoons always adhered to a rule that the Roadrunner would humiliate, but never harm the hapless coyote. However, after watching many of these cartoons in preparation for this Treasure Hunt, I think that Wile was ALWAYS harmed; and most of the time he was barely recognizable in the final scene.

In each episode, the ever-hungry Coyote repeatedly attempts to somehow catch, and subsequently eat, the Road Runner. On occasion, Wile chases Roadrunner, but never, ever catches up to him. And instead of making use of his superb animal instincts, the Coyote employs absurdly complex contraptions (think Rube Goldberg) to try to capture his prey. These comically backfire, with the Coyote most often getting improbably injured in a slapstick calamity. Many of the items for the contrivances are mail ordered (pre-Amazon) from a variety of companies … all named Acme.

Reality: To ensure that your knowledge of Roadrunners has even a modicum of accuracy, I would like to point out some physical facts of life; for both Coyotes and Roadrunners. To start with, I think they have little contact with one another when they are not in a cartoon.

Size: Coyote and Roadrunner are often portrayed about the same size, or Coyote about 1/3 larger than Roadrunner. The Roadrunner is 22-24 inches from tail to beak and weighs somewhere between ½ and 1 pound. A coyote is much bigger and weighs more; as in 3 feet long and up to 43 pounds.

Speed: In all episodes but one, Coyote chases, but never catches the Roadrunner, despite the fact that a Roadrunner averages 15 mph (sometimes sprints as high as 20 mph) and a Coyote clocks in at 40 mph.

Age: While the classic cartoon Roadrunner and its spin-offs lasted a couple of decades, live Roadrunners have a life span of 7-8 years max.

22d carSound: Roadrunners do not go Beep-Beep or Meep-Meep; these sounds were created by the animator of the cartoon. However, the Plymouth Roadrunner automobile, manufactured between 1968 and 1980, was not only named after the cartoon, but Plymouth also bought the rights to the horn and its well-known Beep-Beep. Among several other sounds, including lots of bill clacking, the (non-gasoline powered) Roadrunner actually goes co-coo-coo-coo-coooooo in a series of 3–8 downward slurring notes. These vocalizations are typical of a bird in the Cuckoo family and … no surprise … the Roadrunner is identified as a fast-running ground Cuckoo.

22e range of road runnerPopulation: Roadrunners were found in great numbers in Southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and California until the 1940s. At that time their population declined sharply, not because Coyotes were catching and eating them, but because they were shot and killed under an umbrella of federal and state bounties. Today however, loss of habitat is a much bigger threat. Massive development, especially in California, pushes Roadrunners out of their homes, fragments their territories, drives away prey and eliminates nesting sites. Maps of Roadrunner locations list populations in many parts of California as “uncommon”. And a 1994 scholarly paper on Roadrunners declared them extirpated; locally extinct in Santa Barbara. Guess what? They’re back!

road runner closeInteresting and Different: Actual roadrunners are far more interesting than their cartoon counterparts. The Roadrunner, unlike most birds, runs rather than flies, and feeds on some of the most unappetizing animals imaginable. These include scorpions, black widows and even venomous rattlesnakes. In fact, as omnivores, they will eat anything that is alive, weighs less than a pound, is moving and is not poisonous! It is also curiously unafraid of humans. Typically, a Roadrunner will trot up close, cock its head and peer at us, raise and lower its mop of shaggy crest and flip its long tail expressively. (The long tail feathers provide balance not only when it is looking at you, but when it is running as well.) These unusual traits point to it being completely unafraid and undeniably zany! (After all, the cartoon was part of the “Looney Tunes”family.)

22f road runner flyingNot Much Reason to Fly: Because they can run fast and find almost all of their food on the ground, why bother to fly? Only if a Roadrunner has to escape a predator, reach a branch, or catch a flying insect, will it actually fly. The flight is then for very short distances, and only for a few seconds before it glides to a landing. This particular bird is simply not constructed for flying. The reason is that its skeleton cannot support a point of attachment for the large pectoral muscles required for prolonged and vigorous flight.

22g small road runnerKeeping Warm: On cool desert nights, Roadrunners enter a state of torpor by dropping their body temperatures; thereby conserving energy. To recover from their cold night of slumber, they spend the morning lying out in the sunlight, with their feathers raised to allow the sun to reach their black skin. If daytime temperatures drop in winter, they use the sun to warm up several times a day.

22h road runner mouthWhat About a Social Life?  With all that chasing, “Roadrunner” did not have much chance for a social life. However, live Roadrunners are very serious about family matters. They defend their territory, have elaborate mating rituals, form life-long bonds and cooperatively work together in all aspects of reproduction. In order make the nest ready for eggs, each member of the pair has specific tasks. The male collects materials for the nest and the female builds it. She then lays 3-10 eggs. While both parents take turns incubating the eggs during the day, he gets all the night duty, because his body temperature does not drop after dark during nesting. Chicks hatch in 3 weeks and both parents will feed, protect and care for them for about a month. In favorable seasons (lots of food around) they can raise 3 broods of young in a single season.

Lots of Babies ...
Lots of Babies …

In the area of reproduction, Roadrunners are model parents and the absolute antihesis of their Cuckoo relatives. Many other Cuckoos NEVER build nests, but always lay their eggs in other bird’s nests and trust that the parents of the invaded nests will raise their young for them!

... to Feed
… to Feed

Where Are They in Winter? A puzzling question is why Roadrunners are observed much less frequently in winter months. Although there is no definitive answer as to where the Roadrunners are, there is some speculation about what may be going on. Migration is impossible because they can’t fly for more than a few seconds. Some observers have theorized that they hibernate, but thus far there is no evidence supporting that hypothesis. Others offer the possibility that they go into their “nighttime torpor state” for a long period. Unhappily, there is no evidence for that either. Maybe they have immigrated to More Mesa because of our great climate?

For a quick overview of this zany, unbirdlike bird take a look at this short video from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

We are grateful and truly indebted to Doris Evans of Tucson Arizona for her wonderful and detailed photos of a pair of Roadrunner parents and how they raised and cared for their young. Many thanks Doris!

Stay safe … Valerie

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #21

kites in fliteMMPC’s Signature Bird …

You may have noticed that there was no hunting for treasures last month. We guessed that you all were busy enough with the dual tasks of keeping safe and the holidays. Instead, you received a version of our yearly holiday greeting; a beautiful photo of a White-tailed Kite wearing a Santa Hat. This is the typical holiday card our supporters receive each year, along with a brief message from a respected environmental hero. This year, and in keeping with the unusual nature of 2020, we sent a longer message and one hopefully more appropriate to the times we are living through.
Sitting Kite

kite at restWhite-tailed Kite: The beautiful White-tailed Kite is the signature bird of MMPC and has been associated with us since we began our work more than 20 years ago. Because Kites are so very special, they are one of only 12 fully protected birds in the state of California. Our state’s classification of “Fully Protected” was, and remains, a way to identify and provide additional protection to those animals that are rare or face possible extinction. Further, with regard to the Federal Government, even though the White-tailed Kite is not listed as under the Endangered Species Act, it receives protection under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Both of these are very serious protections!

kite rangeWhere Are They: White-tailed Kites can be found on the West and Gulf Coasts of the United States and into Central and South America. Locally, they can be observed year-round along the California Coast, in open grassland, marshes and agricultural areas. Closer to home, our own More Mesa has played a vital role in the recovery of the species, not only on the South Coast, but for the whole state. It has accomplished this because it offers the critical hunting and nesting habitat necessary to support high densities of Kites. Therefore, as agricultural land in the Goleta Valley continues to shrink rapidly, preservation of More Mesa becomes an increasingly crucial part of safeguarding this beautiful bird.

In good years, with plenty of rain, you can find several pairs of Kites in different areas of the Goleta Valley. In bad years, such as the protracted drought we are currently experiencing, we are lucky to have a single pair … and that pair, almost always makes its home on More Mesa. The historical site for a single pair has repeatedly been on Eastern More Mesa just north of the Cottonwood Grove, but this year things seem to be changing. We have at least one resident pair seen either in the central or western part of More Mesa.

kite logoBeautiful and Easily Seen: The White-tailed Kite is a small hawk, easily identified by the all-white body and tail, and the black wing patches which are visible in flight or sitting. The open wings are sharply pointed with a three-foot span. Juveniles can be identified because their chest and head are lightly streaked with reddish/reddish orange color. And … all Kites have red eyes! But the dead-giveaway for a White-tailed Kite is their unusual hover flight when hunting. (More on this later.)

The More Mesa Menu: More Mesa’s open grasslands provide important foraging habitat for Kites. Indeed almost 80% of More Mesa’s grasslands have been identified as either primary, or secondary White-tailed Kite foraging areas. Why grasslands? Kites feed primarily on small rodents that are active by day in open country, particularly voles and house mice. These critters eat seeds, and grasslands generate millions and millions of seeds per acre.

It is for this reason that droughts are particularly hard on Kite populations. Low rainfall does not encourage prolific grasslands and their all-important seeds. Less food for the rodent population translates into fewer rodents and thus less food for Kites.

mesa wideHunting Strategy: White-tailed Kites almost always hunt by hovering. (Watch this video to truly understand what is going on.) This distinctive hover behavior lasts up to a minute and ends with a successful prey strike only about 10% of the time.

kite huntingDuring “the hover”, the Kite is searching for prey, but in a very unusual fashion. As we have learned in past Treasure Hunts, avian vision is different for different species, and extremely well adapted in many remarkable and extraordinary ways. Their most incredible adaptation is their high resolution eyesight. However, the most unusual adaptation for avian vision, and raptors in particular, is the ability to see in the ultraviolet (UV). For those birds, who prey on rodents like voles and mice, this ability gives them a distinctive edge when hunting. This is because their prey, rodents, like many other species, use scent as a communication mechanism; marking territories, mating etc. Therefore, in these species, long scent trails become obvious markers of where the animal has been. An easier way to explain this is that rodents urinate by constantly “piddling”, leaving a trail behind them wherever they go. The usefulness of this habit to a hungry Kite takes a little explaining.

The explanation goes like this. For a long time, researchers were aware that scent marks of small rodents become visible when these markings absorb part of the UV radiation present in sunlight, and then reemit the absorbed energy as visible light. This is the process of fluorescence. However, a recent finding shows that scent marks left by voles (who urinate almost continuously), are also detectable by kestrels from reflected UV light. You might compare all of this to how a plane lands by watching the markings on the runway of the airfield. Clever … right?

kites in lineMeeting Up: White-tailed Kites often have winter get-togethers in what is known as a communal roost. The “roost” is when a group of individuals, typically of the same species, congregate in an area based on some external signal. In the case of Kites, that signal is nightfall. Once the roost is established, the birds return to the same place every evening around dusk. The benefits of this gathering could include better hunting, warmth, protection from predators and just plain “getting together with the gang”. (I learned a new phrase for this benefit; “conspecific interactions”.) While watching Kites in a recent large roost (see photo by Barry Rowan), I was also told by a well-known and recognized local birder, that he thought the juveniles were especially focused on the roost so they could select the best partners for the spring nesting season. (Does this remind you of going to the dance at the gym to pick out the best guy or gal to be with?)

Historically, More Mesa supported one of the largest White-tailed Kite roosts in California. At one point, it was thought that 5% of California’s population resided here. Sadly, the Kite population of the Goleta Valley continues to decline as agriculture disappears and urban pressure takes its toll. As a result, roosting has been sporadic for almost two decades. However, when the drought took a year off in 2019, the Kite population exploded and we were privileged and delighted to be able to observe roosting on More Mesa; as early as September. Although there are only 14 Kites in the photo above, there were up to 28 birds spotted at various times and it was a real treat!

kite twig transportKeeping the Species From Disappearing … Chicks: More Mesa is considered the most important location for White-tailed Kite nesting on the South Coast. Because of the significance of this special bird, researchers have been studying and recording More Mesa’s Kites for nearly half a century. In pages 29-33 of our award winning More Mesa Handbook you can see that More Mesa consistently supports from one to three nesting sites with double-clutching (two families in one year) also observed in good rain years.

kite babiesDecember is courting season for White-tailed Kites. (Perhaps the males are seeking out that one female who caught their eye at the roost?) Courtship can often be in the form of ritualized displays. In one of these, a male offers prey to a female and then, in a spectacular aerial exchange, the female flies up to meet the male, turns upside-down, and grasps the prey. After they are both suitably impressed with one another, the two will form a monogamous pair in December, and stay together year-round. Nest building starts in January with White-tailed Kites typically choosing nurseries in the upper third of trees that may be 10–160 feet tall. The nest, which is made of twigs and lined with grass, weeds, or leaves can be built by the female or the pair. Its construction takes 1-4 weeks. When complete, the female usually lays 4 eggs and incubates them for about a month. During that time, the male brings food to the her and continues to do so until the eggs hatch. However, once the chicks have hatched, dad has to find food for both mom and the growing chicks! Mom is then responsible for transferring the food he delivers to the chicks in the nest. Even after the chicks have learned to fly, they are expecting free meals from dad. And, like most teenagers, they are pretty demanding! You can see that in the behavior in the photo below … where two chicks are competing over food that dad has procured. It is also evident in the header photo where the juveniles are chasing an adult with food. After those two-three exhausting months for mom and dad, the kids are on their own. It’s truly amazing that pairs still possess the energy to raise two broods in a season … even with plenty of food around!

kites in fight

kite humansWhich Came First?: Ask any group of random folks what a kite is and they will say it’s the paper thing attached to a string that people fly on windy days in Mary Poppins. And it is. Ask the same group why our emblematic bird is called a Kite and they would probably say “because it looks like a “kite”. But it is believed that the bird actually came before the paper thing. Apparently, the word “kite” was derived from the Old English word “cyta” meaning to shoot up or go swiftly. Therefore, the word seemed like a good fit for a bird that could swoop on prey, hover in flight and soar. More than 20 Kite species are found all over the world so millions of people are able to marvel at their airborne ballets. As for the other “kite”, it is believed that the paper thing was originally constructed in China. Its form resembles the bird because the paper kite hovers nearly motionless in the air … similar to Kite behavior. However, it can never match the antics of a living Kite.

White-tailed Kites hunt in the early morning and late afternoon. Come out to More Mesa to observe this beautiful bird that is so very important to save! But don’t expect to see one at lunch!

Stay safe … Valerie

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #17

Barn Owl Chicks
Barn Owl Chicks


We hope you enjoyed the first half of the owl story; the head. This Treasure Hunt discusses all the rest; what goes on below the owl’s head.

Flying … Stealth is the Name of the Game

Large, soft wings give most owls the ability to fly slowly and silently. Several factors enable this advantage. Not only do owls have larger wings in comparison

Feather Edge-Photo by Kay Schultz
Feather Edge-Photo by Kay Schultz

to both their body mass and that of most other birds, but the wing feather is completely different from those of other birds. Instead of the usual sharp edges,
owl wing feathers are “comb-like” and break down the turbulence that normally creates the “swooshing” sound of a bird in flight. Instead the sound is muffled and the owl flies silently, enabling it to listen for tiny sounds from the movement of prey. Take a look at this short video, which is labeled “4. Owl Flight is Silent”. It shows how all the wing features of an owl combine to insure that it will arrive at its prey without a sound.

Soft Owl Feather
Soft Owl Feather

Just so you know … owls don’t get to eat when its raining. Their soft and effective feathers are not waterproof and they can’t fly when the feathers are wet.

Hunting Strategy … Time for Talons and Beak

Owls generally have a hunting territory away from their daytime roost.
As soon as a target is located, the owl will fly towards it, keeping its head in line with the target until the last moment. This is when the owl pulls its head back, and thrusts its feet forward with its talons spread. However, owls have an unusual adaptation that involves their feet. Like other raptors, owls typically have three talons pointing forward and one pointing backward. But owls can rotate one of their forward-pointing toes to the back, making their toe arrangement more like that of a woodpecker, and becomes, yet another body part that is able to swivel! The advantage of this talon talent is evident when the owl grasps its food. If a rabbit or mouse is struggling to get away, it’s very helpful to have an equal number of talons on each side to ensure the prey won’t free itself. Exhibiting truly exceptional grip, owls also have the ability to lock their toes around an object so that they don’t need to continually contract their muscles. This gives them maximum grip with minimal effort!

The force of the impact of the talons is usually enough to stun the prey, which is then dispatched with a snap of the beak. Once caught, smaller prey is taken away in the beak, or eaten immediately. Larger prey is carried off in the talons.

Powerful Talons--Photo by Deane Lewis
Powerful Talons–Photo by Deane Lewis

Food … Finally We Get to Eat!

Owls are carnivores, but their main food largely depends on the species of owl. For example, in the case of More Mesa’s owls, the Great Horned Owl eats larger mammals like rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, big birds and skunks! (It’s OK … owls can’t smell!) Long-eared, Short-eared and Barn Owls eat smaller mammals, like voles, mice and rats. The smallest owls, Western Screech and Burrowing eat insects, small birds and sometimes small mammals. Here comes the test to see if you were paying attention in Part I of owls! All our owls have yellow eyes except the Barn Owl that has black eyes. Who hunts when?

Digestion … It’s Not That Easy

Like other birds, owls cannot chew their food – small prey items are swallowed whole, while larger prey are torn into smaller pieces before being swallowed. For example, Barn Owls swallow their prey whole, skin, bones, and all … and they eat up to 1,000 mice each year.
Rather than being stored for later, the owl’s dinner is passed directly to the digestive system. Owl stomachs have two parts, one that does the chemistry necessary for digestion and the other (the gizzard) is what holds, and eventually compresses the trash (fur, teeth, bones, feathers etc.) The digestible part is allowed to pass through the system with useful components being absorbed into the body and the waste of food digestion being excreted at the end of the digestive tract … the “white stuff” that birds leave everywhere.
Several hours after eating, indigestible parts (trash that is still in the gizzard) are compressed into a pellet that ends up, after several meals, being the same shape as the gizzard. (Think of the gizzard as a trash compactor and you get the idea.) The pellet then travels

Snowy Owl Eliminating a Pellet--Photo by Leslie Abrams
Snowy Owl Eliminating a Pellet–Photo by Leslie Abrams

back up from the gizzard to the “chemistry section” and remains there for up to 10 hours before being regurgitated. Because the stored pellet partially blocks the owl’s digestive system, new prey cannot be swallowed until the pellet is ejected. Regurgitation looks really painful, but at least the owl can eat again.

Pellet-Photo by Leslie Abram
Pellet-Photo by Leslie Abram

The Cycle of Life

Most owls reach sexual maturity and are ready to reproduce in about a year. The decision to reproduce is not always at a specific time of year, but often based on available food supplies. Also, various species begin courtship at surprising times of the year. For example, the Great Horned Owl begins in December; even in very cold places! As might be expected, and after we have explored their lifeway in such depth, courtship among owls is mostly about sound. Depending on the species, various specialized hooting is used for attracting mates, as well as nodding and bowing and appropriately enough … billing and cooing.

Although variations exist for different species, owls are usually monogamous, or pair with the same mate for several seasons. They don’t construct nests as such, instead they are opportunistic nesters, using ready-made sites or taking over the abandoned nests of other birds. They also use holes in trees, barns or other buildings. And when you provide these birds with an owl box, they think they have died and gone to heaven! However, Burrowing Owls nest underground; appropriately enough, in abandoned burrows.

Great-horned Owl Family
Great-horned Owl Family

Depending on the species, the nest will mostly house a few eggs. During incubation, eggs are rarely left alone. The female, who is always larger than the male, will incubate the eggs. She develops a brood patch, which is a sparsely feathered part on the belly, with a higher density of blood vessels than other parts of the skin. This allows eggs to receive warmth directly from her through this area, and they will hatch in about 30 days. Owl chicks, similar to the Western Gull chicks we talked about in a previous Treasure Hunt, hatch with the aid of an “egg tooth.”

How Cute is this Little Guy?
How Cute is this Little Guy?

Dad delivers food to the nest up to 10 times a day. Prey is ripped apart by the adults until such time that the chicks can swallow it whole. At that time the chicks also begin producing pellets. They fledge anywhere from 4 to 10 weeks, depending on the species. Parents care for the fledglings an additional few weeks to few months, and then the circle is complete again.


Throughout history and across many cultures, people have regarded owls with both fascination and awe. In ancient times owls represented wisdom and helpfulness. However, by the Middle Ages in Europe, the owl became an associate of witches and the inhabitant of dark, lonely and evil places. In the eighteenth century, science eliminated some of the mystery about owls, and now with superstitions dying out in many parts of the world, the owl has returned to its position as a symbol of wisdom.

Finally, and you knew this was coming, we have to talk about the major role played by owls in the Harry Potter tales. Since Harry’s world does not have a federal postal service, owls carry all the mail … messy … but they get the job done! And, in addition to mail service, Harry’s owl Hedwig, provides warm companionship whenever he is blue and lonely. (FYI: Hedwig is a Snowy Owl and native to Arctic like regions!)

snowy owl

We are indebted to for providing its very professional and accurate information on owls, as well as several of our most interesting photos.

Remember: Six Feet Apart and Stay Safe,


Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #16

owl bumberWHOOOOO? … IT’S OWLS

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl

Many members of this treasure’s family live on More Mesa. However, they may be more difficult to see, although easier to hear … especially if you are willing to venture out onto More Mesa at night. The last Christmas Bird Count recorded a phenomenal six separate species of owls on More Mesa. Over the many decades we have been collecting sightings data, these are the most owl species ever recorded, at one time, and there are some species we have rarely, if ever seen!

Western Screech Owl
Western Screech Owl

The largest of our hooting avians is the Great-horned Owl at 23 inches. Significantly smaller are the Barn, Short-eared and Long-eared Owls, all of which are between 13 and 16 inches. Our tiniest owls are the Burrowing and the Western Screech Owls, about 10 inches

Although we think of owls as hunting only at night, that is not the case. (More about this when we look at owl sight.) You can quickly determine the hunting habits of an owl by the color of its eyes; black or brown hunt at night, yellow hunt at dawn and dusk and orange hunt in the daytime. However, a majority of the owl family are nocturnal creatures and do most of their hunting when light levels are low. Why? Because many owls hunt for rodents, and rodents are active at night. The next obvious question is, “How does an owl hunt in the dark?” The answer is that its head, and all the elements of the head have evolved precisely for this very purpose; that is, hunting in the dark. Specifically, owls have incredible sight, a neck that can rotate its head a full 270 degrees and amazing hearing.


This treasure hunt proved to be so fascinating and interesting that the tale could not be told in a single issue. So, the story of the Owl will come in two parts; first we will describe all the functions that are carried out in the head and the next issue will conclude the tale with details of what happens in the rest of the owl’s body.

Incredible Sight … At Night

Owls have extremely large eyes, in a very small skull. The eye is tubular in shape, accounts for up to 5% of the owl’s weight and is held in place with bones. It’s definitely nothing like our eyes, that are round, weigh .0003% of our body weight and are held in place with muscles. Light collection is also aided by a reflective surface behind the retina which reflects the image back after it has passed through the eye. This gives the owl a chance to collect twice the light for discerning the image. That information is then passed on to the brain.

barn owl head burrow head tufty head

We discussed rods and cones of bee eyesight in an earlier Hunt. Cones are important to bees since they have a great need to see colors. For owls, it’s all about rods! Faced with low light levels, you need lots and lots of rods. Indeed, owls have 5 times as many rods as humans, one million rods per square millimeter! As a result, they can see 35-100 times better than we can at night. For example, Barn Owls can see a mouse at 6-7 feet with an illumination the equivalent of the light of a match a mile away.


The downside of owl vision is that they are very farsighted, and cannot focus well on objects that are within a couple of inches. So, to compensate, Mother Nature has equipped them with whisker-like tiny feathers (filoplumes) around their beaks and feet to help them detect objects close in, as well as “feel out” the food they have captured.
Another factor on the “upside” is that most bird eyes are usually at their sides, but owl eyes face forward, as do ours. This means owls also have binocular vision, similar to ours, and it gives them increased depth perception … even in the dark. A final feature of owl eyes is that the iris of the eye can adjust so owls can see in the daytime, unlike other nocturnal animals that can only see at night.
And to wrap up, these, oh so important, owl eyes are well protected with three eyelids. The upper eyelid closes down when the owl blinks and the lower closes up for sleep. The third is a translucent membrane that moves horizontally from the inner corner of the eye to the outer. Its task is to view prey, while keeping the eye safe during the last part of the capture.

Third eyelid - Photo by Evan Hitch
Third eyelid – Photo by Evan Hitch

The Swivel … Takes it All In

Great-horned owl looks over its back
Great-horned owl looks over its back

With its huge eyeball, held in place with bones, an owl cannot roll its eyes to look around. Instead, when pinpointing prey, it moves its entire head, an incredible 270 degrees in either direction and 90 degrees up and down. How can it achieve these feats? First, owls have twice the number of vertebrae in their necks as other birds. And second, they have a blood pooling system that collects blood to power their brains when neck movement cuts off circulation.

Hearing … Sophisticated Sonar

When they cannot see their prey, Owls rely on hearing. A hunting owl, therefore, will use the calls and movements made by a mouse, vole or shrew to direct its strike. These sounds are channeled in many owls by a very pronounced facial disc, which acts like a “radar dish”, trapping and focusing the sounds into the ear openings. Even the owl beak is designed pointed downward to maximize sound collection.

Barn Owl face has a very pronounced facial disk
Barn Owl face has a very pronounced facial disk

Owl ears are hidden inside feathers and they are higher on one side than the other. This positioning allows the owl to pinpoint and position its prey by turning its head until the sound reaches both ears at the same time. The accuracy of this sound/brain interaction is owl skullsuch that owls can detect a left/right time difference of about 30 millionths of a second! To see owl hearing in action, check out this video of a Great Gray Owl. This species lives in evergreen forests in the far north and on high mountains. In these environments, prey is very often beneath the snow, even in summer. As a result, the Great Gray is virtually blind when it hunts. It seems “flying blind” isn’t a problem when the rest of your face is configured to listen.

Be on the lookout for Part II of the Owl Story that will discuss flight, hunting, food, digestion, reproduction and owls in mythology. More fun to come!

We are indebted to for providing very professional and accurate information on owls.

Remember: Six Feet Apart and Stay Safe,