Friday, December 7, 2012

Owl of the Week: Burrowing Owl

My sincere apologies for leaving the Burrowing Owl out of my Owl of the Week series.  They were in the original list, but somehow I skipped over their place between the Eastern Screech Owl and the Long-Eared Owl.  But make no mistake, these little owls are awesome and well-worth an entire page of this blog.
First, a description:  Burrowing Owls are on the small end of things, weighing just half a pound with a wingspan up to two feet.  They're tall and lanky, with long, unfeathered legs below a rounded body.  They are tuftless owls with moderate facial discs.  Adults are brown with white speckles; juveniles are similar, but less speckly and more buff-colored on the chests.
Burrowing Owls live in open areas west of the Mississippi River from Canada to Argentina, including grasslands, pasturelands and croplands, as well as golf courses and parks and the like.  They live underground in burrows, hence their common name.  Also, the second part of their Latin name (Athene cunicularia) is Greek for "rabbit burrow".  In many of the regions they inhabit, the soils are soft enough for the owls to dig their own burrows, but in Colorado, where the soils are famously hard and rocky, they rely on the abandoned burrows of other animals (more on this later).  They are aggressively territorial about the small area around the burrow, but generally willing to share the larger hunting grounds.

Burrowing Owl family in burrow -
For hunting, they're surprisingly diverse.  They're neither diurnal nor nocturnal, but some blend of crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and insomniac.  In fact, they're active all day and night, taking naps as necessary.  During the day they hunt insects, and at night they catch small mammals like mice.  To accomplish this, they mostly run around on the ground on their stilty legs, or they hunt from low perches like fence posts.  Also--and this is a piece of information I will totally use against my fellow Educational Ambassador Burrowing Owl--they are the only owls to eat fruits and nuts.  Yep, Burrowing Owls are slightly omnivorous, and are partial to cactus fruits, like those of the prickly pear.  My neighbor is never going to live that down.

Juvenile Burrowing Owls -
Burrowing Owls are also unique in their vocalizations, and are excellent mimics.  In addition to a high, repetitive "hoot", they have a short barking alarm call like that of a prairie dog, a shaky hiss that's exactly like a rattlesnake rattle, and a variety of other noises.  The Educational Burrowing Owl at the RMRP has recently picked up the scream of the Common Barn Owl, choosing to use it on small children who get too close.  Here a link to their "hoot", and the very last sound on this page is the rattlesnake imitation. 

As for their status, the health of Burrowing Owl populations varies by locations.  In areas with soft soils, they tend to be doing better because they can dig their own burrows.  But out here, where the soils are hard and rocky, they are utterly dependent on Prairie Dogs to provide homes.  This is a problem as Prairie Dog towns are continually being eradicated in Colorado and other Great Plains states.  For Burrowing Owls, it's enough of a problem to place them on Colorado's Threatened Species list.  Populations are diminishing, and will continue to do so until Humans decide to leave room for Prairie Dogs in this state.

Burrowing Owl and Prairie Dog -
Burrowing Owls come in to the RMRP pretty infrequently, usually the victims of car stirkes or barbed-wire fence entanglement.  As always, the RMRP provides the best care possible for these birds so they can rejoin their wild populations, and it's your donations that keep this work going!
Alright, this is the end of the Owl of the Week series (for real this time).  Thank you so much for your readership.  If you appreciate the raptors we save and the educational work we do (including this blog), please consider donating using the link above.  Otherwise, I hope to see you at the Open House this Sunday! 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

General update 12/05/12

Good evening everyone!  It's been awhile since I've let you know what's going on at the RMRP, so I figure it's a good time for an update.  In a sentence, the overall situation can be described as "a welcome decrease in case load, with many ongoing, interesting and hopeful cases, and a whole slew of other activities."
Northern Pygmy Owl - released!!

Let's start with case load:  to date the Humans have admitted 257 birds for the year.  By comparison, last year they only admitted 242 birds.  A couple of weeks ago there were 35 active cases in house, and now the number is down to the mid-twenties.  Happily, almost all of that decrease can be chalked up to successful releases!  A quick summary of some of the birds to leave the RMRP in the past couple weeks:

-An immature Northern Goshawk (shoulder trauma)
-An American Kestrel (unknown trauma)
-A Red-Tailed Hawk with high-voltage trauma (from a power line)
-An American Kestrel (head trauma and fractured corocoid)
-An American Kestrel (hit by a car but without major injuries)
-The Northern Pygmy Owl (bit by car)
-The Boreal Owl (hit by car)
-Two Saw-Whet Owls (window strike and hit by car)
-Two Red-Tailed Hawks (hit by car and flew into truck cab)

Immature Northern Goshawk with quail lunch - released!!
I'm sure there are more, but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.  Of course, to make up for the exodus, the Humans have been admitting birds, as well.  Fortunately, the admit-blitz of three weeks ago (admitted eight birds in one week) was followed by a much milder week of only four admits, then just two last week.  In fact, the Critical Care unit is nearly empty at the moment, a first for the year (and a welcome change of pace).

Some interesting species in-house right now, including two Merlins, the small falcons from the north.  One is a small male, and the other a larger female.  They're both in small flight cages so the Humans can assess their flight.  Falcons are like high-performance athletes, and perfect flight is the only option for them to survive in the wild.  Prognosis is guarded on these two at the moment, but the Humans are optimistic.

Merlin - active case
There has also been an influx of American Kestrels getting into odd situations.  For example, one male bird came in covered in sticky goo after running rampant inside an icky warehouse for awhile.  It took some time to de-gunk all his feathers and give him time for a wing injury to heal, but he's making nice progress now.  Another Kestrel, a female, came in with her feet encased in hardened spray-foam, the kind used in house insulation.  The kind people who brought her in have no idea where she got into the stuff as they hadn't been using any on their property.  A mystery, but one with a happy ending as she is doing well with her feet freed.

American Kestrel with feet freed from insulation
In non-active-case news, the Humans and Educational Ambassadors like me have been busy raising money, presenting educational exhibits and programs, and preparing for events.  We've been making a fun circuit of the public libraries all year long, with a different theme education program each month.  The last one for the year didn't include me, but it sounded great:  the topic was winter residents, and the three Educational Ambassadors who attended were the Merlin, the Rough-Legged Hawk, and the Ferruginous Hawk!  Check the RMRP's calendar in January for next year's schedule (the programs are free and very entertaining and educational).

Boreal Owl - released!!
If any of you are friends of the RMRP on Facebook, you'll have noticed the fundraising campaign we were advertising this last week.  The fundraiser was hosted by Colorado Gives, a campaign to increase charitable giving in Colorado (did you know that Colorado is in the top-ten richest states, but in the bottom-five in terms of charitable giving?).  The Colorado Gives project takes one day a year to campaign fiercely to help local non-profits raise money.  This year the RMRP earned $13,000!!  Huge thanks to everyone who helped out with that, either by donating or by asking your friends to support us.  However, that's not the last fundraising campaign of the year for us, as we're considerably behind in donations compared to last year, and taking care of more injured raptors than last year.  In order to get 2013 going, the Humans will be needing more money to feed and care for us birds--details to come!

Volunteer Appreciation Party! 
Oh yeah, the Humans had a party last week to celebrate the work all the volunteers did throughout the year. I wasn't invited, but I'm not partial to salads and peach cobbler anyways.  At any rate, the Staff Humans recognized volunteers who contributed the most hours, attended the most shifts, went on the most bird rescues, attended the most programs and exhibits, and more.  So far this year volunteers have contributed 28,000 hours of work!!  When I say this program wouldn't be here without the volunteers, I mean it.  They are essential and highly valued (not to mention it's fun to scare the pants off the brand new ones with a well-timed flight across the cage).

Now they're all busy preparing for the big shindig this coming Sunday.  It's our annual winter Open House, and there's a whole list of reasons you should attend:

Educational Long-Eared Owl
  1. A behind-the-scenes look at our hospital facility, which is generally closed to the public
  2. Knowledgeable staff and volunteers on hand to answer all your questions
  3. Interesting educational posters and displays to explain what we do and why it's so important
  4. Numerous Educational Ambassadors on display, including some of our newer and shier birds that you may have never seen before!
  5. Snacks and hot drinks!
  6. Access to the amazing gift shop, which is well stocked for your holiday shopping (jewelry, books, stuffed animals, clothing, bookmarks, postcards, stationary, calendars, adopt-a-raptor, and more!)
The Open House will be held at our main facility on Vine Drive from 11:00-3:00 on Sunday December 9th.  Visit here for directions.  Hope to see you there! 

Whew, that was quite the update.  I think I'll sign off for now.  Be sure to check back tomorrow as I will be writing about Burrowing Owls! 

Thursday, November 29, 2012


So, one my neighbors and fellow Educational Ambassador for the RMRP just came a'knocking, and apparently I goofed up on my "Owl of the Week" series:  I forgot the Burrowing Owl.  Completely and utterly forgot.  The good news is, there's one more article in this series to look forward to, so check back next week for a article about Burrowing Owls!


Owl of the Week: Northern Pygmy Owl

Hello again everyone!  I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving.  I myself had an extra helping of mice last Thursday--delicious.  At any rate, this is the final entry in the "Owl of the Week" series.  After today, we will have covered every resident specie of owl in Colorado, and, with the exception of the Mexican Spotted Owl, all the owls the Humans take care of here at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program.  Well, let's get going on the final owl in the series: the Northern Pygmy Owl. Northern Pygmy Owl
These little owls are particularly interesting owls.  Everything about them, from size to nesting habits, is a little different from most owls.  For one thing, they're the smallest specie of owl in Colorado, and the second-smallest in the United States (second to the Elf Owl).  They only stand a few inches tall, and weigh in at just 2-2.5 ounces, about as much as a slice of bread or ten quarters.  But, like most of the small owls (and large owls, for that matter), they are much tougher and more aggressive than their body size implies, and are willing to take on prey much larger than they seem able to kill, such as quail.  Smaller prey, however, is the norm, including small birds, rodents, and large juicy insects.  Showing the false-eyes on the back of the head
Other key features of their appearance:  there are three color morphs (red, grey and brown); their tails are proportionally long for an owl; their eyes are bright yellow; and there are two dark spots on the nape of the neck that look like false eyes.

They are also the only local specie of owl that is truly diurnal.  Northern Pygmy Owls, therefore, are missing many of the adaptations common among other owls, such as silent flight, above-average hearing, and night vision.

Northern Pygmy Owls live in the western United States, southwestern Canada, and in Mexico south through Guatemala.  Their preferred habitat is forest, ranging in elevation up to treeline.  They spend the majority of their time in the thicketed areas of forests, where they hunt from perches and fly rapidly between trees for cover.

Northern Pygmy Owls are almost entirely dependent on woodpecker holes to build their nests.  They live alone the majority of the year, only coming together during mating season.  Unlike most owls, the female doesn't start incubating the eggs until they are all laid, which happens over the course of a week.

The Humans here at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program just released a Northern Pygmy Owl earlier this week!  This bird was found at an intersection in Fort Collins.  The bird was largely uninjured, and had probably been caught in the wake of a car rather than actually being hit by a car.  Either way, the bird needed awhile to recuperate under the RMRP's care before being safely released into more suitable habitat than a city intersection.  Northern Pygmy Owls also are admitted to the RMRP after striking windows, or falling prey to domestic cats.  But rest assured, the RMRP is here to help them!

Northern Pygmy Owl at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program
Well, that's the end of the "Owl of the Week" series!  I really hope you learned a lot from it.  Remember to check out the original page to refresh yourself on all the reasons Owls Are Cool, and to find a list of all the owl species in Colorado with links to their profiles on this blog.  As always, remember you can subscribe to this blog by using the little box in the right sidebar; comments and questions below or at my email address ( are always welcome; the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program's official website is a great place to visit; our Facebook page is awesome; and you can follow me on Twitter with the name @RaptorProgram.  And, finally, yet most importantly, if you support the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program and the life-saving work the Humans do for the raptors in the region, please support us by donating here.  Thank you for all you do--we truly wouldn't be here without you!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Owl of the Week: Flammulated Owl
This week's owl is the Flammulated Owl, a tiny specimen that only weighs a couple ounces.  Their name, flammulated, refers to the fire-colored reddish feathers on their otherwise grey-brown faces.  The rest of their plumage is either greyish or brownish depending on the individual.  They are the second smallest raptors in the region, tipping the scales at just 45-65 grams, with a wingspan of 16 inches (about the same as the "wingspan" of Human hands).  Although it doesn't look like it, they actually do have ear tufts (they're just tiny, little ear tufts).
Being such small, inconspicuous owls, they are difficult to find in the wild, although their populations are actually quite healthy.  In the United States they live in mountain forests, usually Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir at elevations up to 10,000 feet.  They are obligate cavity nesters, meaning they only build nests in tree cavities.  Around Colorado they usually use old Northern Flicker or woodpecker holes.  Their range is very scattered, with little patches of habitat in all of the mountain ranges in the Western United States, but not in between.

Flammulated Owls only live around here in the summer breeding season, migrating south to Mexico and Central America during the winter.  This is probably because there's nothing for them to eat up here during the winter.  Unlike other small raptors which eat rodents and supplement their diets with insects, Flammulated Owls almost exclusively eat insects, and only occasionally supplement their diets with very small rodents.  Their favorite bugs to eat are moths, crickets and beetles.  They hunt from a perch at night, like nocturnal flycatchers.
One way to actually find a Flammulated Owl in the wild is by listening for its hoot.  It's a unique noise, although very monotonous.  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, it sounds like "blowing across the top of a bottle" over and over again.

At the RMRP, the Humans don't admit many Flammulated Owls, maybe one or two every couple of years.  When they are admitted, it's usually when they encounter a car or a window during migration.  They're considered a species of least concern, although they are also considered vulnerable because of their very specific habitat needs.
That's all I have for you about the Flammulated Owl.  I'll be taking a break this next week, just like all you Humans, so check back the following week for the final owl in our series, the Pygmy Owl (even smaller than the Flammulated Owl!).  After that, I'll need a new topic to write about, so if you have any ideas about what you'd like to read on this blog, shoot me an email at with your suggestions!  Have a great holiday week!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Owl of the Week: Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Based on the birds being admitted to the RMRP recently, it would have been very timely of me to swap around my article on Saw-Whet Owls (which we admitted two of a few weeks ago), and my article on Boreal Owls (which we admitted one of a few days ago).  Alas, while I'm remarkably wise, I am not prescient.
So, let's learn about Northern Saw-Whet Owls.  These birds are the cutest little murder-machines you've ever encountered, kind of like teddy bears armed with knives.  They're one of the smallest North American owls, standing just 5-6 inches high, with a wingspan of 18-22 inches, and weighing 2 1/2 - 4 oz (about as much as a quarter to a half cup of water).  They are non-tufted owls, with rather large heads in comparison to the rest of their little bodies.  They have a distinctive white "Y" shape on their face, and an overall streaked, buffy coloration elsewhere.  Their eyes are their most striking characteristic, slanty and bright yellow, and as innocent looking as doe eyes.  But at the other end of their body, their arsenal of eight small-but-sharp talons are always at the ready.

Saw-Whet Owl talons (
I've overheard Humans at the RMRP saying, "Saw-Whet Owls have the attitude of a female Golden Eagle packed into a tiny body."  It's not an exaggeration.  Not only do they have the attitude of a bird willing to fight for its life, they also take on (and take down) prey much larger than they are.  While Saw-Whet Owls typically dine on small rodents with a supplementary diet of songbirds and frogs, they don't turn down an opportunity to kill a squirrel, rat, or even a rock pigeon (about 4X heavier than the Saw-Whet Owl).

A picture to show the size of a Saw-Whet Owl.  (Please note:
this is a wild bird being held for banding, and this is not how
the RMRP handles birds)

Immature Saw-Whet Owls look very different from the adults, with a dark, chocolate-brown color on their heads, backs and wings, and a light brown color on their fronts.  They still have that clear white "Y" on their faces, though.  Saw-Whet Owls typically lay from 3-7 eggs in cavity nests (much like the other small owls we've learned about recently).  They fledge after 4-5 weeks, and are sexually mature in under a year.  Life moves fast for small birds like these.

Immature Saw-Whet Owls (
Their common name refers to the sounds they make when alarmed, which apparently sounds an awful lot like a saw being whetted.  Never having heard a saw being whetted myself, I'll have to take the Humans' word on this one.  The other sounds they make is a long series of "hoop-hoop-hoop", and they only vocalize like this during breeding season.  It sounds like this: Saw-Whet Owl call
These birds live in forests with dense areas for nesting.  They're year-round residents of the Rocky Mountains and southern Canada, and winter residents in much of the United States.  In Northern Colorado, a transition zone between the two ranges, they're most commonly seen passing through on migration.  In fact, the RMRP has admitted two Saw-Whet Owls in the past couple weeks, both window-strikes from encountering the large plate-glass windows of beautiful mountain homes as they passed through.  One of these birds has already been released to continue on his way, and the other is still in rehab working out some kinks in her flight.
An odd habit of these birds is to remain still and not fly away when they're discovered.  They're so adamant about not moving that people can readily approach them, and the owl will just sit and watch.  While it's cool from a photographer's perspective, and it allows an excellent chance to closely observe these birds in the wild, please respect its personal space and don't get so close that the bird is forced to fly away.  A reader of this blog actually discovered one of these owls in the wild a few weeks ago and encountered this unique behavior.  A link to his photo-essay is in the comments section for the Boreal Owl article.  I also recommend checking out that article so you can see the difference between the Saw-Whet Owl and the Boreal Owl, which look quite similar.

On a side note, I'm sure many of you have seen the following popular joke:

The bird in the top image is a Saw-Whet Owl, but you already knew that.  The owl in the bottom image is the lower half of the original Saw-Whet Owl, with a very photoshopped head of a much larger, very wet Eagle Owl on top.  The Saw-Whet Owl is also the star of the equally popular "Time For Tickles" image:

Now you know. 

Back to the serious stuff, there's not a lot of data about the population of Saw-Whet Owls, but it's clear to see from the recent admissions to the RMRP that they face similar threats as the other small owls:  window strikes, car hits, and other trauma.  The RMRP doesn't see many of these owls, but those that come through the doors here at our main facility are given quality care and the utmost respect, all the way from admit to release.

If you would like to support the RMRP, please use the donation link in the right sidebar.  Also, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and check out our official website to learn more.  Next week's owl (there are only two left!) is the dark-eyed Flammulated Owl.  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Owl of the Week: Eastern Screech Owl

I know I said last week that this week's owl would be the Saw-Whet Owl, but I was mistaken.  If we continue in order of size, it's actually time for the Eastern Screech Owl.  But don't worry, the Saw-Whet Owl will be along next week (really).

The Eastern Screech Owl is one of the more common small owls in the Northern Colorado region.  In fact, it's one of the more common small owls in the eastern United States.  The northeastern corner of Colorado is one of the western-most points of their range (Montana and Texas also have population bands of these owls).  West of here, the Eastern Screech Owl population fades into the Western Screech Owl population.  I've never seen one myself, but I hear they're very similar in appearance.  In fact, though there are ~23 species of Screech Owl (exclusive to the Americas), they all look remarkably similar.

Eastern Screech Owls are small, tufted owls that live in forested areas.  Their feather patterns allow them to blend into trees easily.  There are two color varieties of Eastern Screech Owls, referred to as 'morphs':  the grey morph and the red morph.  The red morphs make up ~1/3 of the population, but are far more common out east.  Their ear tufts are sometimes held flat, and sometime held upright.  As with the other tufted owls, these tufts help break up their silhouette so they can better blend into trees.
Being able to blend into trees so well, it makes sense that that's where they build their nests.  Eastern Screech Owls are cavity nesters, building their nests in natural holes in tree trunks, or in the abandoned homes of other cavity-nesting birds.  They readily use nest boxes, and have adapted well to suburban settings, so backyard nest boxes for these birds are quite common.  If you do install a nest box in your yard and Eastern Screech Owls take up residence in it, please be careful about letting your dog or cat outside when the young are fledging: cat-caught or dog-chewed chicks are a sadly common sight at the RMRP in the springtime.

Being so small (only 6-10 inches long, with a wingspan just under 2 feet, and weighing half a pound at most), Eastern Screech Owls don't catch terribly large prey, but they might catch larger prey than you'd think.  While small rodents and big insects are the most common, with a smattering of songbirds on the side, Eastern Screech Owls are quite capable of killing rabbits and grouse.

The Screech Owl actually doesn't make much of a screeching noise.  Its common vocalizations can be heard at this website.  Often times, because these birds are so small and camouflaged, the only way to find one is to hear it at night.
The Rocky Mountain Raptor Program takes in more Eastern Screech Owls on an annual basis than other small owls.  Part of this reason is the relative abundance of the owl, and part of the reason is their adaptation to urban and suburban settings.  But despite their healthy populations and strong adaptability, they still run into their fair share of trouble.  Many Eastern Screech Owls come in with head trauma and fractures from being hit by cars, and many come in as orphans in the spring and early summer.  Other injuries include window strikes, barbed wire fence encounters, and being caught by a dog or cat.  As with all the birds the RMRP sees, these birds receive the best possible care to get them back out to the wild for a second chance at freedom.  If you would like to support the work the RMRP does, please click here to donate.

Thanks again for taking the time to read this blog of mine.  I just checked the numbers, and page-views on  reached 20,000 today!  It was just six weeks ago that I was over-the-top excited about reaching 10,000 posts, so getting another 10,000 in such a short period of time has me surprised and thrilled.  Tune in next week to learn about the Saw-Whet Owl.  After that we'll only have a couple of owls species to look at, and then I'll need a new topic to focus on.  If you have any ideas, shoot them my way in a comment or email (  Just a reminder, you can follow me on Twitter @RaptorProgram, check us out on Facebook (Rocky Mountain Raptor Program), and find out more information and stories on our main website (which is brand new and shiny!).  If you would like to subscribe to this blog, use the box in the toolbar to the right.  Thanks for reading and supporting the RMRP!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

General update

It's been while since I've written a status update for you all, and having just received some new active-case birds pictures today, there's no time like the present.  

Immature Red-Tailed Hawk
First off, the weather.  Did anyone else notice the snow and freezing temperatures this week?  So much for our Indian summer.  To battle the cold, the birds tucked their heads and feet into their feathers, which they fluffed out like the down parkas you Humans wear.  The bird pictured to the right is not some freakish new species of headless Red-Tailed Hawk, but rather a normal immature Red-Tailed Hawk keeping warm.  

With the cold weather we have officially entered small-owl season.  After seeing hardly any little owls over the summer, we've received a few Eastern Screech Owls and Northern Saw-Whet Owls in the past two weeks.  One of the Saw-Whet Owls was released last week, and flew off so fast there was no hope of snapping a picture.  That's exactly what we like to see, so good for that little owl!  He had been admitted after being hit by a truck going 60 mph on the highway, but suffered no broken bones and was released after just a couple weeks of care. 

The other Saw-Whet Owl was admitted from Loveland, and is a window-strike victim.  He is recovering from head trauma in the Critical Care room, and even though no fractures have been found, he's drooping one wing significantly.  Sometimes this is a side-effect of head trauma/impact injuries, and could resolve on its own.  On the other hand, the impact could have caused irreversible nerve damage.  Despite his guarded prognosis, he's a little spitfire and is not shy about using his little talons to defend himself.

Eastern Screech Owl
The other little owl currently in Critical Care is an Eastern Screech Owl that also hit a window.  He's getting stronger, is starting to use his legs and feet better, and his balance is improving.  He's making slow and steady progress as his head trauma resolves, and whenever a Human looks in at him, he responds with his angry face.

The first-year Northern Goshawk with a fractured scapula is doing well.  Can you guess how he was injured?  Window-strike!  His head trauma is resolving nicely, and he's eating voraciously to prove it.  The bandage comes off in a couple of days, and then the Humans will assess how the bone healed, and the bird's ability to fly.  For a picture of this bird, check out our Facebook page or subscribe to our Twitter feed

Red-Tailed Hawk with severe head trauma
There are also two Red-Tailed Hawks in Critical Care right now.  One of them just came in today, and I don't have much info.  The other one was admitted from Greeley on the 25th.  He was hit by a car, and the impact fractured his skull and dislocated his hock (a joint in his leg).  While the skull fracture and resultant swelling around his right eye look horrible, he's feisty and eating well. He's non-visual in that swollen eye, and is unlikely to regain vision in it, but the RMRP still gives one-eyed birds a chance to attend live prey school:  if the bird can hunt and kill like a pro, fly normally, and keep his feathers in good condition, there's no reason to not release him.  The prognosis on this bird is guarded, but I'll keep you updated on his progress.  

Overwintering Swainson's Hawks
As for the rest of the birds, the ones who have already made it out of critical care and are working towards release, they're all doing quite well.  The RMRP is overwintering quite a few birds, notably seven Swainson's Hawks who missed the migration window this year, and a Mississippi Kite in the same holding-pattern.  They're all doing well and have great chances of being released, but they need to sit tight until the spring to ensure they have the best chance of making it in the wild.  The Red-Tailed Hawk that flew into a truck cab through the open driver's side window is doing well.  The bruising on her wing has resolved, she's holding her wing normally and flying well.  In addition to the Saw-Whet Owl released last week, an American Kestrel that had been trapped in someone's chimney was cleaned off and released last week as well.  

Great Horned Owl recovering in a Hospital Cage
And then there's the Great Horned Owls.  The one who came in so non-responsive in July that she was almost appeared dead is flying great these days, working on her landings, and relearning how to hunt live prey.  She's come a long way!  Another Great Horned Owl with similar head trauma symptoms has moved outside and is eating on her own.  It's expected that her progress will be slow like the other one's.  And a third Great Horned Owl that's non-visual in one eye is being soft-released this week, meaning the Humans will continue to provide food for him on an outdoor platform for as long as he needs it.  But, given the way he's been annihilating rats in live-prey school, he's expected to do just fine in the wild.  On a final note, the Humans have admitted 232 birds for the year.  By comparison, last year's bird #232 was admitted in December. 

Whew, that was a lot of updating!  I should be better about doing it more regularly.  As always, thank you so very much for all your support.  If it weren't for your financial help, the Humans at the RMRP wouldn't be able to help these birds get back out to the wild.  Also, I have a favor to ask.  I can't help but notice the number of window-strike birds coming in recently, so if you have any tips or advice for how to prevent birds from hitting windows, please share them below in the comments! 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Owl of the Week: Boreal Owl
At first sight, you may think, "The Great-Horned Owl got it wrong, these aren't pictures of Boreal Owls, they're pictures of Saw-Whet Owls!"  Alas, I am not wrong, we just have a case of lookalike birds on our hands (talons?).  The Saw-Whet Owl, which we'll explore next week, is a size down from the Boreal Owl, but otherwise they're very similar in appearance (I'll write a comparison of the two owls' appearances next week once we have pictures of both).  However, they're also different in many ways, so let's get going with the Boreal Owl!

These birds are not super common in these parts.  A small finger of their range extends south from Canada into the US's Rocky Mountains, but for the most part the Boreal Owl is found in far northern North America and Eurasia, in (wait for it) Boreal forests.  They hang out at high elevations when they're at these latitudes, usually in old-growth spruce-fir forests, where they nest in cavities in large trees and snags.  They're reclusive and very much nocturnal, so odds aren't high of you spotting one in the wild.  In fact, the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program sees these birds very rarely, only a handful over that past decade or so.  When they are out and about, they're hunting small rodents such as voles.

Immature Boreal Owl
Some interesting facts about Boreal Owls:

  • Almost all raptors show what is known as "reverse sexual dimorphism", meaning the females are almost always larger than the males.  The Boreal Owl has the most extreme reverse sexual dimorphism of all the North American owls: males tip the scales at a max weight of 4 oz, while females have a minimum weight of 4.5 oz, and can weigh up to 7 oz, almost twice that of the largest males. 
  • Instead of forming life-long mated pairs like most owls, the Boreal Owl only pairs up for a season, then finds a new mate next year. 
  • The chicks look dramatically different than the adults, with an all-over chocolate-brown plumage.
  • I tried finding a legitimate reason for why their Latin name is Aegolius funerus, but while the first bit is easily explained (it means 'owl'), there's no info on why the second name is "funeral."  You'd think a name like that would have some good folk lore behind it, but alas. Check out those feathered feet! 

As I mentioned earlier, the Boreal Owl is not seen often at the RMRP.  In fact, one of the last Boreal Owls admitted at the RMRP caught a ride down to Fort Collins from Cameron Pass wedged into the grill of a truck.  However, though not often seen, they face the same threats as other forest-dwelling raptors in the region:  habitat loss from logging (these owls are quite picky about living in large-diameter trees only), and injuries from window strikes and car hits.  And whenever an injured Boreal Owl is brought into the RMRP, you can rest assured it received the best care possible.

Stay tuned next week for information (and stories) about the tiny-but-mighty Northern Saw-Whet Owl!  Two of these little fighters have been admitted to the RMRP in the past couple weeks.  As always, you can email me with questions or comments at, follow me on Twitter @RaptorProgram, check us out on Facebook (Rocky Mountain Raptor Program), and find out more information and stories on our main website (which is brand new and shiny!).  If you would like to subscribe to this blog, use the box in the toolbar to the right.  Thanks for reading and supporting the RMRP!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Owl of the Week: Short-Eared Owl

Good evening faithful readers!  Tonight I will tell you about the wonderful Short-Eared Owl, a specie of owl that we don't often see here at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program.  We do have them in Colorado, but they're more secretive than their larger and more common fellows, such as the Great Horned Owl and the Long-Eared Owl.  Also, while some Short-Eared Owls may reside in Northern Colorado year-round, they are much more common in the winter.
Short-Eared Owls are actually very similar to Long-Eared Owls in size and shape.  Both are rather tall and skinny for their size, and weigh between half a pound and a pound.  Also, both owls have distinct facial discs and similar facial markings.  However, the similarities stop there.  The Short-Eared Owl has lighter plumage overall, and a notably lighter face than the Long-Eared Owl, and their eyes are more yellow than orange.  They also look different in flight, but that's getting into too much detail for the purposes of this blog.

And, of course, there are the "ears".  Remember, Owls don't have external ears like Humans and foxes, so the "ears" in this case are just the feather tufts on top of their heads.  In these birds, the ear tufts are present and noticeable, but a bit on the diminutive side, and very centrally located, like so:
Unlike Long-Eared Owls which favor wooded areas, the Short-Eared Owl is found in open places like prairies and mountain meadows.  They do prefer some protection for nesting, however, and build nests on the ground in dense undergrowth, dense tree stands, or low rubble.  One of the most interesting things about this beautiful owl is its communal nesting habits.  Often, but not always, Short-Eared Owls will join together and nest in groups of up to 200 birds!  Whether or not that happens is highly dependent on prey abundance. Wouldn't that be a sight?

Short-Eared Owls primarily dine on delicious voles and other small mammals.  They tend to fly low over fields and drop in their unsuspecting prey, silent and deadly as all owls are.  Prey differs by location (these birds live on all the continents except Antarctica and Australia), and in the arctic tundra they're big fans of lemmings, as you can imagine.  Every source I checked described their flight as "noticeably moth-like", and I didn't really know what that meant, so I looked up a video for you:

With a little imagination, I can see describing that flight as moth-like.

As I said, the RMRP doesn't see these owls as patients very often, so I don't have much more information to share with you about them.  The Short-Eared Owls the RMRP has admitted have usually been the unfortunate victims of car strikes, an all-too-common injury among birds.  Remember, if you see an injured owl or any other bird of prey, keep an eye on the bird and call the RMRP's Emergency Hotline (more details on our website). As always, thanks for reading, and thank you for your support of the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program and our mission to give wild raptors a second chance at freedom.  Stay tunes for next week's owl, the Boreal Owl!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Owl of the Week: Long-Eared Owl
Remember when I wrote about the characteristics of owls, and how some owls have ear tufts, and others don't?  Well, here's the king of the tufted owls for you: the Long-Eared Owl.  While it's apparent where the owl gets its name, keep in mind that the ear tufts are just feathers, not ears.  However, this is one of those cool situations where the Long-Eared Owl, though named after its feather tufts, actually has long ears, too.   Kind of.  Owls don't have any external ear, so the ear is essentially a hole going into the head.  With many raptors, this hole is small, about the size of a pea.  In owls, the hole is larger.  In Long-Eared Owls, the hole is massive.  Check it out:
Ears aside, the rest of the Long-Eared Owl is pretty awesome, too.  They're smallish owls, only about a third of the size of me, so they weigh half a pound to one pound.  They are rather tall and skinny for owls, and their tall profile topped with the tall ear tufts helps them blend into tree bark and branches.  
Can you see the owl?  (

One of my personal favorite things about Long-Eared Owls, including the educational ambassador Long-Eared Owl here at the RMRP, is their facial expression.  Okay, it's not really an expression, it's just the way they look.  Great Horned Owls like me always appear angry because of our markings and feathers, and Long-Eared Owls always look surprised.  Surprised might not be right...perhaps appalled?  You decide:

But make no mistake: despite their slightly giggle-inspiring miens, they are fierce and capable wild creatures.  These birds are very adept at defending themselves and their nests in myriad ways, including posturing to make themselves look huge, acting injured to draw attention away from a nest, hissing and clacking the beak, and, of course, flying at their attacker feet-first.  Their feet are relatively small, but the needle-like talons are plenty sharp and long enough to catch and kill their favorite prey:  small rodents that recklessly leave the safety of their burrows at night.
Long-Eared Owls are widespread throughout the United States and southern Canada, as well as in Europe and parts of Asia.  There are even a few pockets of Long-Eared Owls in East Africa.  They live in forested and vegetated areas, and nest in the abandoned nests of other birds.  Though not on any T&E lists, the Long-Eared Owl is subject to the same dangers that threaten all owls in populated areas:  car strikes, poisoning, illegal shooting, entanglement in barbed wire, and more.  The RMRP admits Long-Eared Owls infrequently, generally no more than one or two a year.  Along with all birds that come through the doors, they receive the best care possible to help them get back out to the wild.

That's all I have for you this time.  Tune in next week to learn about the Short-Eared Owl, the close cousin of the Long-Eared Owl.  As always, you can email me with questions or comments at, follow me on Twitter @RaptorProgram, check us out on Facebook (Rocky Mountain Raptor Program), and find out more information and stories on our main website (which is brand new and shiny!).  If you would like to subscribe to this blog, use the box in the toolbar to the right.  Thanks for reading and supporting the RMRP!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mexican Spotted Owls (and some cool facts about owl eyes)

Good evening all!  This week's owl is the Mexican Spotted Owl, a lesser-known resident of Colorado.  As I've never met one of these birds, I got most of my information (and all of my pictures) from online sources such as, but not limited to, the endlessly useful annals of Wikipedia.  (For the record, the Wikipedia entry for Spotted Owls is one of the most thorough and exhaustively-referenced articles I've ever read on that site, and I'm pretty sure a top-tier Spotted Owl researcher must have written it).
The reason I have never met a Mexican Spotted Owl is because we don't have them here in the Fort Collins area.  As a permanently disabled educational ambassador for the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program I do get to travel around the state a fair amount, but none of our journeys have taken us to southwestern Colorado, which is the only corner of the state that these beautiful owls call home.

There are three variations of the Spotted Owl, only one of which (the Mexican) lives in Colorado.  The other two are the Northern Spotted Owl (which claims the Pacific Northwest for its home) and the California Spotted Owl (I'm not going to bother explaining that one). If you're interested in reading more about Human-habitat-owl interactions, I recommend Googling the Barred Owl and the Spotted Owl and checking out the dynamic between those two species in the Pacific Northwest.
As for us, we're concerned with the Mexican Spotted Owl for now.  They're not terribly large owls, being comparable in weight and wingspan to the Common Barn Owl.  That means they weigh in around 1.5 pounds and have a wingspan of 3-4 feet.  Their name comes from the tiny white bars in the plumage on their backs and wings.  The bars are so small they pretty much look like spots.  They have strong facial discs, and large, dark eyes (more info on this below!). Their physiology makes them ideal nocturnal hunters, like most owls.  They prey primarily on woodrats, but also enjoy a tasty range of mice, rabbits, voles, and the occasional bat.
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Mexican Spotted Owls live in forests and canyons, and especially love forests in canyons.  As you can imagine, this can make it tricky to observe one in the wild. They nest either in trees or on rock ledges.  Since they live in such a specialized niche (forests in canyons, remember), small changes in the size of their territory can have big impacts on the species.  In the early 2000's it was determined that habitat preservation was critical to the survival of this species (they're on the Threatened Species List), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service succeeded in preserving 8.6 million acres of land for these birds in the Four Corners region, including 322,000 acres in Colorado.  The logging industry put up a fight, but the USF&WS service won in the end.
So, there's what I learned about Mexican Spotted Owls.  I'd love to tell you something a little more personal about their habits and behaviors, but as I said, I've never met one.  But along the way of researching these birds I did learn something else.  I can't tell you how many times I've wondered if eye color has significance among owls.  I, as a Great Horned Owl, have big ol' yellow eyes,  Barn Owls have dark, almondy-brown eyes, Eagle Owls have orange eyes, and the White-Faced Scops Owl has orangey eyes bordering on red.  And now here's the Spotted Owl, another bird with really striking dark eyes.  What's up with that?  And while I didn't find any answer to why they're different colors, I have determined that the different colors don't indicate whether the owl is diurnal or nocturnal, which is a common theory.
The theory goes like this: yellow eyes = diurnal, dark eyes  = nocturnal, and orange eyes = crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk).  It is true that all dark-eyed owls are nocturnal, but so are most of the others.  With the exception of the Burrowing Owl (yellow eyes and largely diurnal), all the yellow-eyed owls are also nocturnal, including Great Horned Owls like me.  However, yellow-eyed owls are a little more active during the daytime than dark-eyed owls are. While birds like the Mexican Spotted Owl take cover during the day and don't come out unless they really have to, owls with yellow eyes are a little more willing to venture out during the day. But that's it.  Hope you're not too disappointed.

Along the way of researching owl eye colors, I learned more cool things about my eyes than I know what to do with.  For instance, I've always known that both my upper and lower eyelids move when I blink, but I didn't know that owls are the only raptors that do this (all the other raptors just blink with just one lid).  I also learned why my beak is so low on my face compared to other raptors:  owls' eyes are so big that if our beaks were any higher they would get in the way of our eyesight!

That's all I have for you this time.  Tune in next week to learn about the Long Eared Owl!  As always, you can email me with questions or comments at, follow me on Twitter @RaptorProgram, check us out on Facebook (Rocky Mountain Raptor Program), and find out more information and stories on our main website (which is brand new and shiny!).  If you would like to subscribe to this blog, use the box in the toolbar to the right.  Thanks for reading and supporting the RMRP!