Friday, September 28, 2012

General Update: Welcome Fall

I have been so wrapped up in writing about awesome owls, I have completely neglected to keep readers updating on the going-ons of the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program.

Golden Eagle admiring the fall colors
The biggest, most noticeable recent change is that fall is here in a big way.  The weather slipped almost instantaneously from long, hot summer days to brisk days and brisker nights.  Rain has at last returned to Colorado, washing the dust from the leaves just as they're donning their autumn colors.  When the Humans go around for morning bird check these days, they often find us birds perched with one foot tucked up in our feathers to keep it warm, and our feathers all fluffed out for added insulation.  As the day warms up, we slick our feathers back down to cool off.  

The change in season has brought about two other annual changes for the RMRP: a change in the species being admitted to critical care, and a change in the injury/illness types.  During the latter part of summer, the bulk of the birds admitted to the RMRP were immature Swainson's Hawks, with the usual scattering of the other species.  But in the first couple weeks of September, all the Swainson's Hawks kettled up for migration and flew south out of Colorado for the winter.  The Osprey have also hightailed it out of the area, and Turkey Vultures will be next.  To replace them, Rough-Legged Hawks and Merlins (falcons) will be migrating to Colorado soon.

Sunrise outside my window
The Humans were able to rehabilitate and release the majority of the injured Swainson's Hawks before migration, releasing the youngsters into existing kettles so they would have guides to Argentina, the destination of their trip.  However, not all of the birds were ready to be released, either because they are healing from serious injuries and need time to regain flight strength and stamina, or because they suffered feather damage from West Nile Virus and need to complete a molt or two before being ready for the wild.  These birds (there are eight of them at the most recent count) will be overwintered in a large flight cage.  While this gives them all the time they need to perfect themselves for next season so they can rejoin the population, it's also a long time to support the care of these raptors.  Between the eight of them they are eating ~40 oz of food each day (that's 2 1/2 pounds of meat).  If you would like to support the RMRP in caring for these awesome hawks, please donate a few bucks to the cause.

Immature Swainson's Hawks overwintering at the RMRP
As for injuries, the end of summer saw the Humans admitting large numbers of birds with West Nile Virus.  The final numbers aren't in yet, but it was definitely the worst West Nile year in Colorado since 2003.  Fortunately, the numberof birds being admitted with the virus is tapering off as mosquitoes die and more birds gain immunity to the virus.  Unfortunately, the West Nile birds are being replaced with broken birds.  The end of summer and beginning of fall is when the RMRP starts to see a lot of birds with more severe injuries.  Many of these birds were starving to begin with, a result of a hard, dry summer among other things.  Hungry birds are desperate and confused birds, and many of them start wandering into moving cars while searching for road kill and hunting along roadsides.  Hit-by-car birds with treatable injuries often require x-rays and occasionally surgeries to rehabilitate them.  They also require a lot of supportive care to get them back up to a healthy weight.  Again, the RMRP needs donations to be able to heal and release the birds, so please consider contributing.

Peregrine Falcon release
In more heartening news, the Humans have been able to release numerous birds.  Most recently that included a Great Horned Owl with a fractured coracoid and head trauma, and a Common Barn Owl with similar injuries.  An immature Mississippi Kite was released to its group a few weeks ago, just before they migrated south for the winter.  Numerous Red-Tailed Hawks are going through Rat School right now, and all appear to be killing with great zeal and skill, so they should be out of here soon, as well.  A Peregrine Falcon with high-voltage trauma (power line encounter) hit the skies again a few weeks ago.

Great Horned Owl regaining use of her legs
Other interesting cases include a Great Horned Owl who was on the losing end of a fight with another owl on Colorado State University's campus.  It appears the bird had already experienced some sort of bodily trauma before the battle.  He's healing up with daily care for his puncture wounds and road rash.  Another Great Horned Owl is in critical care trying to regain strength and the ability to use her legs and feet.  She's slowly returning to an upright position, demonstrating the great tenacity and spirit Great Horned Owls are renowned for.  Similarly, a Great Horned Owl that was admitted months ago, completely unresponsive and unable to move or feed herself, is outside in a recovery flight doing much better.  It took a long time for her to come this far, and she still has quite a ways to go, but she's an inspiration.

And, finally, there's the education side of the RMRP!  The last weekend of September (29th and 30th) is full of public exhibits, including Elk Fest in Estes Park (all day Saturday and Sunday), the Northern Colorado Birding Fair at Fossil Creek Reservoir (Saturday 7am-2pm), and the Irish Festival here in downtown Fort Collins (Saturday and Sunday all day).  They're fun and educational festivals to attend, and the RMRP hopes to see you there!

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.  If you would like to subscribe to this blog, use the box in the toolbar to the right.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The [un]Common Barn Owl

Next up in our owl series is the Common Barn Owl!  Along with the Great Horned Owl, Common Barn Owls are the most commonly sighted owl in the region.  When I go out to programs and exhibits with the Humans, I often overhear stories along the lines of, "I saw this HUGE owl the other day in my barn - what was it?"  The answer is Common Barn Owl.  However, they're not as big as they seem.

c Jerry Liguari
Remember how I said Great Horned Owls weigh about 1.5-5.5 pounds?  Well, the Common Barn Owl is the next largest owl commonly found in Colorado, and it weighs a mere 0.5-1.5 pounds.   Yep, all that wingspan and majesty from a bird that weighs the same as a can of beans.  But when it's flying silently toward your face when you enter an abandoned warehouse or a little-used barn, you probably don't care what it weighs, you just don't want it near your eyeballs.  Barn Owls, however, are not aggressive birds, and they're merely trying to fly out of the barn to get away from you.
As the name implies, Common Barn Owls do spend a lot of time in barns.  But before there were barns, where did they hang out?  Barn Owls are cavity nesters, meaning that instead of building their nests in the sprawling and exposed branches of an oak or pine, they build their nests in tree cavities and hollows, as well as rock nooks and small caves.  However, since barns and other Human-made features are so warm, cozy and protected, Barn Owls often opt to nest in barns, silos, warehouses, and church steeples.  Barn Owls are also big fans of Human-made nesting boxes.  Humans can install these nest boxes on their own properties and see if a pair of Barn Owls comes along to take up residence.  Instructions for building your own box are easily found with an internet search.  Humans often install Barn Owl boxes to lure Barn Owls to their property as a means of rodent/pest control, as shown in this PBS video.

One reason Barn Owls are so good at controlling rodent populations is that they're insatiable eaters.  Catching and eating upwards of six vole-sized critters each night, they can really keep tight reins on the local population.  Also, it's incredible how many pocket gophers they can fit into one stomach!  Like most owls (including me), they generally swallow their food whole instead of ripping and tearing it like most other raptors do.  And Barn Owls don't even blink when it comes to swallowing animals that seem impossibly large.  Skip ahead to minute 3:30 in the video below to see what I mean.

The eating pace doesn't slow down at all when there are chicks in the nest, either.  Barn Owls lay between four and seven eggs, so that's a lot of mouths to feed when they all hatch.  And do they eat smaller, more appropriately sized food?  No way.  They eat just like mom and dad.  It's unreal.
Baby Barn Owls with a feather-duster "mom" at the RMRP

Baby Barn Owls are a little goofy looking.  Many Humans think they're adorable, while others think they look like alien pterodactyls. They certainly don't look much like their adult versions until they're many weeks along.  Adult Barn Owls, on the other wing, are simply stunning birds.  They're in the non-tufted class of owls, meaning they don't have ear tufts like I do.  They still have extremely prominent facial discs, however, which is largely responsible for their success as hunters.  Females of the species have slightly duskier coloration, with more brown on their faces and chests, while males are more of the snowy-white variety.  This often leads to people thinking Barn Owls and Snowy Owls are the same thing, but as you can see in this picture, they're very dissimilar.  For the record, Harry Potter had a Snowy Owl, not a Barn Owl.
Snowy Owl on the left, Common Barn Owl on the right
The Common Barn Owl, while obviously not common in appearance or behavior, is called "common" because of its wide range.  Barn Owls are found on every continent except Antarctica, and within each continent they inhabit every imaginable ecosystem.  Because of their extensive range, Barn Owls have numerous variations and subspecies, between twenty and thirty depending on who you ask.  Tyto alba is the Latin name for Common Barn Owls, and the variation in North America is Tyto alba pratincola.  Something kind of cool about their Latin name is that the word "tyto" is a Greek onomatopoeia meaning "owl"; "tyto" mimics the classic owl sound, like the English word "hoot".

Educational female Barn Owl foster mom guarding her charge
Barn Owls used to face a lot of intentional persecution as a species.  One likely reason for this is the owl's ghostly appearance:  with the white plumage, silent flight, and a knack for flying out of barns at Humans, they earned a reputation of evil associated with ghosts and death.  This is reflected in their other common names, which include Demon Owl, Ghost Owl and Death Owl.  Fortunately, as education about Barn Owls spreads, they're facing less and less intentional persecution.  However, like all raptors, they still face threats from the usual suspects: power lines, poisoning, car strikes, and more.  Habitat loss has led to the Barn Owl being listed as an endangered species in seven Midwestern states.

Educational Ambassador for the RMRP, male Barn Owl
At the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, injured Barn Owls are admitted with all the above injuries and more.  Another common way for Barn Owls to come to the RMRP is via orphaning.  While their nest sites are often excellent cavities, they're not always stable or well-located homes.  Nests in hay bales, under trucks, in rafters, and in the walls of buildings are accidentally knocked down each spring, leading to entire nests' worth of baby owls coming to the RMRP to be raised by our resident foster parents.

So, there you have it, the uncommon Barn Owl.  Stay tuned next week for a profile on the Mexican Spotted 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.  If you would like to subscribe to this blog, use the box in the toolbar to the right.

We appreciate your support of the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in helping us keep raptor populations strong and safe!  We're always seeking donations to help us continue our mission of rehabilitation, education and research.  Thank you!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Great Horned Owls Are Amazing

If you didn't read my last post, here's the news: we're about to go on an owl binge.  That means for the next eleven weeks you will learn about a different specie of owl each week.

When I decided to embark on this venture last week, I was very surprised to look back through my posts (there are 120 of them, but the way, so lots of stuff to look back through if you're interested) and see that I haven't yet written about myself!  I mean, it doesn't get much cooler than Great Horned Owls, and Great Horned Owls don't get much cooler than me, sooo...I don't know what happened.  But rest assured, that all changes now.  Without any further ado:


(is that too much?                                  ...Nah...)

Man, I don't even know where to start.  Should I talk first about how big and strong we are, or about our hunting habits, or maybe about our ability to live just about anywhere?  I know, let's start with the basics: size and shape and all that.

Great Horned Owls are the largest of the owls found in Colorado.  The heaviest North American owl is the Snowy Owl, and they're just a little heavier than Great Horned Owls.  Great Horned Owls usually weigh between 1.5 and 5.5 pounds, which is as little as a 700 ml bottle of pop, or as much as two Nalgene bottles of water, but we don't generally weigh more than 3.5 pounds around here.
As our name suggests, we have horn-shaped feathers on top of our heads.  Contrary to popular opinion, the horns are not our ears, nor are they located very near our ears.  (For more info on where owl ears actually are, check out last week's post about owls.  I added some diagrams of asymmetrical owl ears.)   The "horns" are called ear tufts, and they help us blend into tree bark by mimicking the back pattern and breaking up the smooth outline of the head, like so:
Ear tufts are also used to group owl species.  Colorado's "tufted owls" include the Great Horned Owl, the Long Eared Owl, the Screech Owl (Eastern and Western), and the Short Eared Owl.  Non-tufted owls are those with smooth heads, like the Common Barn Owl and the Saw-Whet Owl.

Comparison of tufted and non-tufted owls
In addition to size and horns, Great Horned Owls are easy to identify because of their shape.  We sit rather low on our feet, we have broad bodies and large heads.  While we're certainly not slender, most of our bulk is feathers.  Wikipedia calls my species "barrel-shaped" but I resent that.  Do I call Humans "log-shaped" or "lolly-pop shaped?" * Not usually.

As for coloration, there's actually a lot of variation.  Some Great Horned Owls are dark with striking contrast, and others are paler.  Some have a vivid white collar, others have the barest hint of one.  But one thing all Great Horned Owls have is gigantic yellow eyes.  The better to see you with, my dear.  In fact, if Humans had eyes proportional to Great Horned Owl eyes, their eyes would be the size of oranges:
If you have a hard time seeing a Great Horned Owl because of its camouflage, you'll have no problem recognizing the hoot of one.  It's the classic hoo-hoo-hoo call, which you can listen to here:

Great Horned Owls have pronounced facial discs because we're largely nocturnal.  During the dusk and dark hours we hunt a wide variety of prey, but rabbits make up a large portion of our diet, as well as small- to medium-sized rodents.  We kill our prey with our feet, like all raptors, but we have beefier feet than many raptors, with 300 pounds per square inch of crushing power.  That makes pretty quick work of a mouse, I can assure you.

If you were a Great Horned Owl, you would be very lucky indeed, for you could count the following among your best traits:
Adult and immature
  • Being very adaptable: We are able to live in almost any environment, from swampland to cities, and are the most widespread owl in the Americas.
  • Good parenting:  We take care of our young for a long time compared to most raptors, keeping an eye on them for as long as seven months after hatching. 
  • Pest controller: We help keep rodent and rabbit populations in check by preying on them as our dominant food source.
  • Awesomeness: We're beautiful and awe-inspiring, and who doesn't like that?
Despite these excellent recommendations, Great Horned Owls are still persecuted across the Americas.  People fear that owls will harm them or their domesticated animals, but Great Horned Owls are not agressive towards people who leave them along, and only take small pets very rarely.  Fortunately, as education about raptors improves, people are realizing that there are better ways to deal with these problems than by offering bounties on owls.  Here is an article on how to keep your pet safe from large raptors.

Getting an eye exam - eye trauma is common in impact injuries
Great Horned Owls also fall victim to many Human-related accidents.  Common injuries seen in Great Horned Owls at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program include those incurred from barbed wire fences, car hits, high voltage trauma from power lines, poisoning, and the occasional and saddening gunshot.  They are also one of the most common birds admitted to the RMRP - 48 were admitted here last year alone. 

That's all I have for now.  If I keep going I'll start talking about how awesome I am instead of my entire species.  Thank you for reading, and I hope you learned something!  Stay tuned next week for a profile on the Common Barn Owl.  I'll show you how very uncommon they are.  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.  If you would like to subscribe to this blog, use the box in the toolbar to the right.

We appreciate your support of the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in helping us keep the raptor population strong and safe!  We're always seeking donations to help us continue our mission of rehabilitation, education and research.  Thank you!


*Answer:  only when making references to the "how many licks" Tootsie-Pop commercial, which, by the way, is entirely inaccurate: owls are only concerned with biting. Lots of biting.  Oh, and taloning.  That too.

Monday, September 17, 2012

10,000 page views!!

Thank you all SO MUCH for your support!  I'm going to go eat a mouse in celebration.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

All About Owls

Okay, for all you owl lovers out there, the "Why ____ Are Awesome" column will be devoted to owls for the next foreseeable future.  Yes, that's right, I'm about to go on an owl binge.  That means, for the next eleven weeks, you will learn about a different specie of owl each week.  Yeah, that's right, ELEVEN WEEKS.  That's because we have twelve species of owl regularly occurring in Colorado, everything from the mighty Great Horned Owl to the equally-mighty but much smaller Northern Pygmy Owl.  Did you know that?  There are twelve species and eleven weeks because I don't think I can write separately about the Eastern and Western Screech Owls.  

So, I started writing about the first specie (can you guess which one I'll be talking about?), and I realized there are a lot of cool things about owls in general that you should know before we delve into the individual species.  So this entry will be a sort of background post to get everyone on the same page, so that next week, when I start talking about facial discs and whatnot you'll all know what I'm talking about! 
Short-Eared Owl (

First of all, this is the list of owls that will be discussed:
-Burrowing Owl
-And, if you aren't all owled out by then, I'll cover the Great Gray Owl and the Snowy Owl, just because they're so special, even thought they don't normally occur in Colorado.

So, what do all of those birds have in common?  They're all owls!  And what does it mean to be an owl?  It means you're the coolest of the cool, and that you're way better than all other birds, even raptors.  Sorry, is that biased?  Okay, let me try again.

Owls are a group of raptors (definition: birds who catch and kill their prey using their giant, deadly feet) that are largely nocturnal, and have wide faces in proportion to their beaks.  But that's a generalization--not all owls are nocturnal, and some look wildly different than others.  The smallest owl is the Elf Owl, coming in at just 1 ounce, and the heaviest is a tie between the Eurasian Eagle Owl and the Blakiston's Fish Owl: the large females in both species can weigh a whopping 10 pounds.  For comparison's sake, a Great Horned Owl like me tops out at 5 pounds, and an average male Golden Eagle weighs 8 pounds.
Immature Elf Owl (
Blakiston's Fish Owl (

Owls are highly specialized in a variety of ways.  Most famously, they have excellent hearing.  They have to be able to hear well because most of them hunt at night, when vision won't do them much good.  There are a few reasons why their hearing is so excellent.  One is that most owls have asymmetrically placed ears that allow them to triangulate the location of what they're listening to. Location of ears on a Barn Owl

Also, they have a facial disc, a feather formation that funnels sounds to those asymmetrical ears like a satellite dish.
Great Grey Owl (
Even though owls have excellent hearing, is not quite enough to use exclusively, so their eyesight is pretty great, too.  Owls are famous for having large eyes, as is seen in cartoons and art.  And while the largeness of owls' eyes contributes to their awesome vision, it's actually the fact that their eyes are elongated that allows them to see so well.  It would require a discourse in eye anatomy to fully explain it, but suffice it to say that longer eyes make for larger images on the retina, so the brain and neurons all have more material to work with, and so can see better than most other animals.  But, there are a lot of different eye-shapes and eye-colors in owls, as you will see over the next few weeks.
Snowy Owl (
In the same vein of adaptations-for-hunting-at-night, owls also have special feathers.  Owls have an incredible ability to fly silently, and this is largely due to the structure of their feathers.  While most birds have rigid feathers with straight edges, the leading edge of owl feathers is serrated, and that breaks up the air as it passes over the feathers, rendering them silent.  Interestingly, the owls that don't have to be silent to sneak up on prey, namely the fishing owls, do not have feather serrations, and therefore are noisy fliers like most birds.
Okay, I think that's all you need to know about owls before I delve into the nitty-gritty of individual species.  Now when I say, "The Great Grey Owl has the largest facial disc of all the owls", or, "Barn Owls have mastered the evolution of asymmetrical ears," or, "Burrowing Owls are largely diurnal, so they don't need such extreme facial discs," you'll know what I'm talking about. 
This owl is excited.
Okay, who's excited to hear all about why each of the owls the Humans treat at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program are so cool?  I know I am.  I'll kick it off next week with....I'm not telling.  It's going to be a surprise.  Kind of.

In the meantime, don't forget that you can contact me via the comments below, or at my email address at  Also, if you haven't liked the RMRP on Facebook or followed me on Twitter, I highly recommend that you do.  And, finally, please vote for the RMRP in the Chase Giving charity drive today--help us win money from Chase Bank with a simple Facebook vote! Please contact the RMRP for any real questions for the Humans. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Q&A Corner: West Nile Virus and Feathers

Q:  "I heard something about West Nile Virus making birds' feathers fall out - is this true?  Why does it happen?"

A:   Yes, it's true!

Here's something the average Human doesn't know about birds:  when our feathers are growing in, they're connected to an active blood source.  The blood provides the nutrients necessary to grow the feather, which is a much more complicated thing than a Human hair.  While these feathers are growing in, they're called "blood quills" or "blood feathers", and they look like this:
See the tube that looks kind of like a straw?  That's all full of blood as the feather grows.  When the feather is done growing, the blood source is cut off, and the feather looks like what you're used to.  Of course, while the feather is growing in, it's very important to not break it!  Thankfully, we birds have evolved a molting pattern than allows blood quills to grow in with the protection of other intact feathers around it, so it's not much of a problem in the wild. 
Broken blood quills from
 So, what does this have to do with West Nile Virus?  The virus often affects feather growth in birds, causing blood quills to pinch off and fall out prematurely.  Below on the left is a picture of what a feather looks like when it falls out normally during a molt, and on the right is what a pinched off blood quill looks like:

At the RMRP right now, the Humans are picking up a lot of feathers that look like the one on the right in the cages.  So far eight birds have been blood tested and confirmed for the Virus, but there are many more with West Nile Virus symptoms that are awaiting confirmation.  The good news is that most birds with WNV can be rehabilitated with supportive care and a lot of hard work from the Humans.  However, when birds have feather problems like those above, it can take many months of care for them to grow in normal feathers and be released.

Have more questions about WNV, or anything else for that matter?  Email me at and I'll do my best to answer your question!  You can also follow me on Twitter @RaptorProgram (I'm really very funny and interesting, I promise).  And, of course, there's the RMRP's Facebook page, which is pretty awesome, and the actual RMRP website at  See you around! 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Twitter Takeover

Did you know that American Kestrels are experts at caching their food?  Yes indeed, when a Kestrel has leftover mouse bits or half of an uneaten lizard, the Kestrel stashes the food in a handy nook or cranny and saves it for later.  This occurs in the wild and also in captivity.  As you can imagine, the caching habits of captive Kestrels can lead to rather yucky cage-cleaning encounters for the Humans.

Did you also know that American Kestrels are very loud birds?  Whenever they're hungry, excited, bored, scared, etc they make a high-pitched repetitive "klee-klee-klee-klee-klee!" sound.  Here's an example:

The reason I'm telling you these random Kestrel facts are because the American Kestrel with the Twitter account was found out the other day.  Even though he was adept at caching his iPhone where Humans couldn't find it, he refused to turn off the sound effects--he just loved the chatter.  To that end, people kept swearing they heard beeping noises coming out of his cage, and a few days ago he was caught before he had time to hide the phone.

Long story short, the Kestrel is no longer in charge of our underground Twitter account.  And since all the other educational birds at the RMRP are more interested in preening than in social media, it looks like I'll be a Blogging Owl and a Tweeting Owl.

And just so you know, this will be awesome. 

So check it out on Twitter: @RaptorProgram is where you can find me.  I'll be Tweeting about the amazingness of my daily life as an Owl, as well as posting links to interesting raptor-related and conservation-related news articles, local events, RMRP events, and interesting factoids about raptors.

You can't tell by looking at me, but I'm really excited!  Hope you are, too!