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!