The Bird Of Night
( Originally Published 1910 )
IF all classes of birds were as hard to become acquainted with as the owls, the increasing thousands of boys and girls, men and women, who discover for themselves the fascination of the sport of bird study would mostly get discouraged and try other things. Even I must confess that I should need to see a bird now and then to keep up my enthusiasm. But, as far as the bird of night is concerned, sometimes, in spite of all my efforts, whole seasons slip by without my meeting with a single owl. Even Ned, with all his activity, has but very few times in his life discovered an owl in the wilds, other than what I had first located. The owls are both scarce and secretive, usually remaining in hiding during the daytime, and the student need not be too much chagrined at being unable to find them. Fortunately there are plenty of other birds to interest and occupy one afield. So hunt away, keeping the eyes peeled for the hid treasure, and some time, surely, you will find the bird with the big eyes, and get such a thrill of delicious excitement in your success that you will not begrudge the waiting which made the joy of attainment so keen.
Fortunately, though, the owls have voices, and most of them are inclined, at times, to lift them up in singing —if one may so call it. This makes an intelligent and persistent hunt for them quite likely to succeed, provided, of course, that there are any owls there to find. And owls there almost certainly are within the limits of any country town which is reasonably well wooded with fairly large timber and is not too suburban.
Our two principal "hooters" are the Great Horned Owl and the Barred Owl, both of which are confused under the popular name of "Hoot Owl." They are both big birds, especially the former, which is also distinguished from the other by having large ear tufts, which look like horns. They do not migrate to any great extent, though they wander more or less in winter when food is scarce, but stay, for the most part, in the same general region or tract of woodland in which they nest. In the autumn they begin their loud hootings. One can easily distinguish the two by these sounds, for the Great Horned Owl has but three hoots to his song, while the Barred fellow's vocal effort is much longer and more elaborate. They are most apt to hoot about sundown on mild or moist days when it threatens to rain or snow, and, indeed, they are pretty good weather prophets. Probably they "feel it in their bones" when a storm is brewing, though there is no likelihood that these hardy creatures are rheumatic. These hootings are their love notes, their mating cries, and I just wish I could find out from them why their fondness deepens with the suggestion of stormy weather. If they were accustomed to have comfortable nests, we might think that the approaching storm aroused longing for the luxuries of home. But as their homes are most uncomfortable places, and only one of the pair occupies it at the same time, we cannot explain the mystery so easily. The only plausible reason I can think of is that the rise of temperature which accompanies the approach of storm, together with the increasing dampness, brings some conditions of early spring, at which time they are accustomed to nest. Yet hardly has the light spring fancy of love awakened before the cold northwest wind in the rear of the storm area puts it to sleep again. But these are the times to take advantage of, to learn where the owl lives. Don't stick in the house those winter afternoons. A good winter's tramp, or drive, with a bird quest in view, is exhilarating and delightful. Why shouldn't you enjoy the distinction among your admiring and almost envious bird-loving cronies of having yourself found a big owl's nest? I never can forget how I felt, when a boy, attending the Boston Latin School, when one Monday morning one of my schoolmates announced in tones of exultation that on the preceding Saturday he had found a Barred Owl's nest. I had never found any sort of an owl's nest, and that youth became, in my eyes, a real hero, a mighty Hercules, almost. If he had become President of the United States in later years I should have felt but the tiniest fraction of the hero-worship which I then accorded him. So, if it be such a glorious achievement in the eyes of some people to find a big owl's nest, and if you know of a tract of woods where you keep hearing the owls hoot in winter, there is no reason in the wide world why you shouldn't be the one to find the nest.
But when is the time to search? Long before most people imagine. In the cold and snowy weather of 1906—7 a friend of mine found one of my old pairs of Great Horned Owls in the pineries of Plymouth County, Mass., doing business at the old stand in the middle of February ! A cold sleet storm was raging, but he donned his wet-day uniform of rubber boots, coat, and hat—and found the big owl sitting on her open plat-form of sticks high up in a tall white pine on her two nearly fresh eggs. He took these as trophies, and early in March the great birds had twins again, which he allowed to hatch, and enjoyed photographing them as they grew up. That is the true sportsman's spirit, to defy cold and wet, and what a pleasure it is to add such an achievement to the repertoire of one's sporting experiences !
By the last week in February, probably Washington's birthday, every well-regulated family of Great Horned Owls in the latitude, of from New jersey to Massachusetts ought to have eggs, or not later than the tenth or fifteenth of March even up in northern New England or southern Canada. The Barred Owls are a little later, and I have usually found them to have fresh eggs by the first of April, and sometimes as early as the middle of March. Both these hardy birds seem to go more by the calendar than by the weather, and at the regular time they will have their nests and eggs, blow it high or low, and be the temperature as bitter as it may. Some years, as the time came around, amid a succession of blizzards I would say—"Surely those owls will not be laying now." But they were, none the less.
Some pairs are earlier or later than others as a regular habit each season, so each owl family has its own schedule and will nest each year at about its own accustomed time. One pair of Barred Owls, for instance, I would always find nesting by the middle of March, but in the next township another pair would not complete their set of two or three eggs till about "April Fool's Day."
The way to find the nest of either of these large owls, when one has found out where they usually hoot, is to go in and make a thorough canvass of whatever large timber is there. Generally they will either occupy the old nest of a hawk, crow, or squirrel, which consists of a platform of sticks in the crotch of a tall tree, ever-green or other, or, if there is a large hollow cavity, pretty well up from the ground, they will use that. If the large owl is brooding in the cavity, she will fly out if the tree is rapped. In case the nest is an open one, she will usually fly out when one approaches, though not always, for sometimes she will wait until the tree is thumped, and once I found a Great Horned Owl which would not leave even then, though I could see her great round face looking out over the edge of the nest. One must get to know the region and explore it thoroughly, not overlooking a single old weather-beaten crow's nest, for that may prove to be just the one chosen by the owl. As in searching for hawks' nests, the very best sign of a nest being occupied is to see bits of downy feathers clinging to its edge. The hawk's down is white, that of owls gray or yellowish. If you can see the down, climb, or get someone else to do it for you if you cannot, for the nest is probably occupied, or about to be, unless, possibly, an owl has merely eaten a grouse up there.
In my book "Wild Wings" I have detailed so many finds of Great Horned and Barred Owls' nests that I must not go into this here, but I will tell about a very remarkable owl's nest which was recently found by a friend, and which I went with him to see.
Not far from Providence, Rhode Island, across the line of Massachusetts, is a little patch of woods, hemmed in on all sides by roads, houses, and a trolley line. Strangely enough, a pair of Barred Owls stayed there, and often during the winter and early spring were seen from the cars in the early morning perched by the roadside. A friend of mine lived near by, and on the first of April he saw one of the owls sitting on a large new nest twenty feet up a small maple, and flushed her by rapping the tree. In fact he had seen her on or about the nest several times before this. It happened that I was in Providence giving a bird lecture, and the result was that I went with him on April second to try to photograph the owl, which was quite tame. Getting ready my reflecting camera to snap her as she flew, I advanced toward the nest, when, to my astonishment, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew out, too far off for a picture. My friend was perfectly dumfounded, for he was an experienced ornithologist and was positive beyond question that a Barred Owl had been occupying the nest, which now contained three hawk's eggs. However, I remembered that another friend had once found a nest in which both a Barred Owl and a Red shouldered Hawk had laid, and hoped that this might be a similar case. Sure enough, it was. Someone shortly after this took the hawk's eggs, but later an-other friend visited the nest and found it to contain one hawk's egg—probably the last one of the previous set -and two Barred Owl's eggs. It was unfortunate that the nest was in such a public place, for the mixed family were not allowed to hatch, so nothing could be learned of the developments of this remarkable occurrence.
There is another good-sized owl which we are liable to find nesting, the Long-eared Owl, which is somewhat smaller than the Barred Owl. Unfortunately it is not addicted to hooting and is one of the most secretive birds I have ever met. Sometimes I start one out from the shade of a thick cedar swamp, or other dense tangle, but it only allows the merest glimpse as it goes flopping away. It generally occupies some old nest and sticks to it so closely that one is likely to pass it by, after pounding the tree, without a suspicion that the sly brown bird is snuggled closely on her eggs.
There is one time at least when this silent bird utterly changes its usual behavior, and that is when she has young, and her nest is invaded. I must tell about one such experience which I had. I was camping one spring with a party of friends in a wild region, on the wooded shore of a large lake. One day, in early June, a furious storm was raging, the wind blowing almost a hurricane directly on shore, raising surf that would have done credit to the ocean. Clad in rubber clothing, we were exploring the woods near camp. At length, as I struggled through the wet branches, I caught sight of what appeared to be a crow's nest, about twenty feet up a small oak. Upon close approach I noticed two brownish knobs or tufts sticking up from the nest and waving in the gale. Then a head was raised, and a shrewd-looking face with a pair of bright yellow eyes, was turned toward me. Beckoning to my friends to approach cautiously, I whispered excitedly as they drew near-"A Long-eared Owl, for all the world!" We were nearly under the nest, and had a fine chance for mutual staring. Then I began to ascend the tree, and the owl flitted silently off into the shrubbery. The nest was certainly an old crow's nest of the previous season, slightly repaired on top by the addition of a few sticks and leaves; in it were four owlets and an addled egg. The young were clad in whitish down, with the "juvenal" plumage beginning to show, and were probably about three weeks old. As I was examining the odd little fellows, the mother suddenly alighted upon a branch a dozen feet from me, ear-tufts erect, eyes fairly blazing, feathers ruffled, snapping her bill with a sharp clicking sound, and uttering wailing cries which sounded much like the yowling of an angry eat. Indeed she was the ideal of a vixen, as she flitted from limb to limb, with an occasional angry swoop at my head, so' near as to strike it with her wings, uttering a harsh exclamation, as she did so, which, I fear, was an owl "swear word." After we all had inspected this prize, we withdrew, and saw the mother go back, almost at once, to her brooding.
By afternoon the rain had about ceased to fall, and, though it was dark and cold and blustering, as we were to leave the locality early next morning, I decided to try to photograph the owl. A neighboring tree, only six feet from the nest, gave an ideal view point for the camera. I had just finished screwing up the instrument, when the owl, who had been making great protests all along, fairly outdid herself. She actually alighted on my head, struck her claws into my cap and really tried to drag me out of the tree. Though spare in build, I proved too heavy for her, and she passed on, assisted by an accelerating shove. Then for awhile I warded her off, but, when I was off my guard, she turned her attention to the camera and alighted on the bellows, into which she sank her claws in vicious frenzy. Finding that she could not drag either of us off, she desisted from the attack. So I attached my linen thread to the shutter, dropped the spool to the ground, descended, and laid my line of communication to a tree some rods away, behind which I hid.
After a little investigation the owl returned to her nest and settled down right before the staring lens. I could now have pulled the thread but for the fact that, owing to the very dull light, I had been obliged to set the shutter for a timed exposure of one second, and the trees were swaying violently, lashed by the gale. In order to see clearly if there was a lull, I crept up close to the owl tree unobserved and waited, thread in hand, for the desired opportunity. Half an hour passed, without a moment in which there was any chance of success. While thus waiting, I was treated to a delicious little episode of owl life. The male owl, a little smaller than the efficient guardian of his children, sailed suddenly through the shrubbery and alighted upon a branch near the ground, hardly ten feet from me. He had seen the camera and was all alert. In one of his fluffy paws dangled a mouse, held by the head, which he had evidently just caught and was bringing to feed his family. He did not see me, and in a moment, satisfied that the camera was harmless, he flitted up to the nest. His mate arose to welcome him and took the mouse, whereupon he flew off energetically in search of another. Being so far underneath the nest I could not see just what happened, but the mother was evidently tearing the mouse, dividing it up amongst her hungry young, who were moving about actively, each ready for its share. This took two or three minutes, and they all settled down as before. It was fairly maddening not to have light for a snapshot of the six owls as the mouse was being delivered over. And now, as there seemed to be no prospect of anything better, I made several exposures on the old owl incubating, and on the young, before I removed the camera, all of which proved to be blurred by the swaying of the trees.
The next morning was clear and cold and I was there at five o'clock, but the old owl would not return to the nest in the time at my disposal. My chum at length came and fairly dragged me away. We had to drive thirty miles to take a train to a point further south. A week later we returned and the first thing I did was to visit the owls. The nest was empty, alas. But, as the old owl was "yowling" about, I made search and found the youngsters roosting in the trees within a radius of ten rods. As long as they were not handled they remained in their "hiding pose," motion-less, erect, feathers drawn tightly together, making themselves look like dead stubs and blending wonder-fully with their surroundings. I took various pictures of them in the hiding places, as well as when replaced in the nest. The old bird was still rather aggressively inclined, yet it was very hard to get her picture. Finally I noticed that she often alighted upon a dead treetop before swooping. So I rigged my cumbersome telephoto apparatus up in the tree, focused it upon the branch where I expected she would come, and waited. For a long time she went everywhere but to the right branch, but at length she alighted just where I wanted her and was still for exactly the required half second. Just as the shutter closed the restless head turned, but photographically the owl was mine!
Whenever I think of those Long-eared Owls, I laugh to recall the vision of a man up a tree, a savage owl trying to lift his scalp, making such a tremendous wailing and screeching that a party of dogs lifted up their voices and finally came and stood, howling, too, around the tree, until some men from the neighboring farm, amazed at the commotion, joined in the assembly, and I, to "save my face" and avert the suspicion of insanity, was compelled to add my voice to the tumult in explanation of the comedy.
There is only one other large owl which we are very likely to meet, the Short-eared Owl, a bird about the size of the Long-eared, but without noticeable ear-tufts. It generally nests further north, but in autumn we are likely to flush it from the ground as we tramp over marshes and meadows, or sometimes moist, bushy pastures. Because it likes such places it is often called the Marsh Owl. I have found their nests in the grass out on the wild prairies of the Northwest.
In the Middle States and in the South one may find the singular looking monkey-faced Barn Owl, which hides itself away by daytime in hollow trees or old buildings. But the only other common owl is the little Screech Owl. Were it not for its tremendous cries, resembling the trilling of the tree toad, which are often heard even in towns or small cities, one might well suppose that the bird is very scarce indeed. The Great Horned and Barred Owls do not mind the broad day-light, but our little friend Screecher prefers to hide in a hollow tree, or even a building until the dusk of evening. If discovered by day, it appears dazed and torpid, and generally refuses to come out of its hole, unless dragged by force. I have often found it in winter by examining the ground or snow under woodpeckers' holes, or in hollow limbs, in orchards or woods. When I find rounded masses of bones and hair, called pellets, the indigestible remains of its food which the owl throws up, I climb to the hole above, put in my hand, and pull out the owl, which usually is too sleepy to make much resistance.
One day in early autumn I took a walk out into the country. At the edge of some woods I noticed an old apple tree with a hollow trunk and a hole about as high up as my head. I thought it a good place for a Screech Owl, and so I went and looked in. Something was in there sure enough, for I could see two round shining orbs. After my eyes became used to the darkness I could see that they were the eyes of a Screech Owl, so I put in my hand and found I could just reach it. It did not struggle or bite as I pulled it out, and I put it in my pocket and rode home with it on my bicycle, to keep it awhile as a pet. Captive owls do not get very tame, but they feed heartily on raw meat and do well if they have room enough to exercise.
Another time I was taking a bicycle ride when I came across a boy who had caught one of these owls in the same way in his orchard. I happened to want one then to study, so I paid him for it, put the owl in my pocket, and, taking the precaution to pin down the lapel, started homeward. When I was about halfway back, I felt to see how the owl was getting on, and found, to my chagrin, that it had escaped !
Last winter one of these owls spent his sleepy days in a hole in a tree right on the main street of the village, about twenty-five feet from the ground. At dusk it would poke its head out of the hole and gaze around for awhile, then crawl out and perch on a limb nearby for a few moments before flying off on a mousing expedition or to catch a fat English Sparrow—for its breakfast, I suppose we would call it, as our night is the owl's day. The boys soon discovered the owl's retreat, and would throw snowballs at the hole, to make the big-eyed bird come to the door. It would only look out, though, toward night. Some of the boys were for climbing up to catch it, but Ned persuaded them to let it alone.
In bitter winter weather the poor little owls had a hard time of it, for they, as well as some other kinds of owls, do not migrate very much, and they crawl in almost anywhere to try to keep warm. One of them used to occupy my next door neighbor's bird box. One Sunday morning the sexton was starting a fire in the church furnace when he discovered a poor little Screech Owl, blinking in the smoke, and pulled it out just in time to save its life. It well deserved to be spared this or any disaster, for it is a fine thing for a town to have resident Screech Owls to keep down the English Spar-row nuisance. There is a village not far from where I live where one winter a Screech Owl stayed all the time in a thick spruce right by the post office and ate so many sparrows that by spring there were hardly any left. They are great mousers, too, as are most kinds of owls, and no one ought to kill them. The one exception is the Great Horned Owl, which is liable to make great inroads on poultry, if it once finds its way to their quarters, though generally it stays in the woods and feeds mostly on rabbits, skunks, and, unfortunately, the Ruffed Grouse.
A friend of mine has a nice aviary of domesticated wild geese and ducks, a tract of meadow close to the brook beside his home, fenced in with wire, but not covered overhead. This summer he began to lose his ducks; every morning one was missing. Finally, when he found a beautiful Pintail drake dead and partly eaten he decided that the intruder must be the Great Horned Owl which hooted off on the mountain. So he put up a fifteen-foot pole at one corner of the yard, with a steel trap set on top of it. The owl will always alight on some commanding perch and look around before pouncing. He expected that the owl would alight on this stake in the trap, and sure enough, at daybreak the next morning, the guilty owl was hanging ignobly from the pole, caught by one foot. A charge of shot put an end to its thieving career. But this is the exception, and most owls deserve better treatment. It would not be fair to hate all boys because one boy was mischievous, would it, Ned?
The Screech Owl lays four or five eggs, which are white, like all other owl's eggs, about the middle of April, at the bottom of a cavity in a tree. It likes an old orchard very well, but is just as likely to locate in the woods. Seldom is there any sign of occupancy about the hole, and the owl will not show herself, how-ever much one may pound the tree. The nest may be right by one's home, but it is hard to find. The only way I know is to keep looking in likely holes, especially in a neighborhood where the owls are heard at night. I have found several nests, but only because I looked in several thousand holes. The brooding owl is as tame as a sitting hen, and, like them, some will peck and some will not, when you pull them off their eggs. The young are queer little fellows, at first covered with whitish down, which changes to a soft gray plumage. Later, when fully feathered, it may be either red or gray in general hue, and we do not know any satisfactory reason for this variation, any more than why some people have brown hair and others red.
There is another little owl, even smaller than the Screech Owl, which we may happen upon some time. It is called the Saw-whet Owl because its love song in the spring reminds one of the rasping of sharpening a saw. Most specimens are seen in fall or winter, in bushy pastures or cedar swamp thickets, or are found dead in severe weather about houses, whither they have been driven in a last vain hope of finding a mouse to keep them from starving.
A hunter whom I knew caught one of them in a steel trap set for mink in the woods in March. He had the little sprite in a room in his house, where it was flying around actively, alighting on the furniture. I was glad enough when he offered it to me, and took it home in a box, to photograph and study it. The next day I should have secured a series of pictures of it from life, but a furious easterly gale was raging with a pouring rain, and it was very dark. As the conditions were most unfavorable, I waited till the next day, and was sorry that I had not done the best I could even in the storm, for the little creature lay dead under its perch, and I have never yet had another chance to photograph one.
Had I begun to hunt birds with the camera a little sooner than I did, I should have had a splendid opportunity to picture this rather rare owl, for I was so fortunate as to find a nest eleven years ago. The bird usually goes further north to breed, and this was the only nest I ever have seen. I described the adventure quite fully in "Wild Wings," but may say that it was in a Flicker's hole, in a pine stub, and the bird was so tame that I could have done almost anything with her. She had five incubated eggs on the eighteenth of April.
However, I did manage to take a picture of a Saw whet. Three of us were out fora tramp and came to a horse shed at the edge of the woods. It was open, so I looked in, and there sat a tiny Saw-whet Owl on a beam close by. The owl and I were face to face, and we both just stood and stared at each other in blank amazement. Presently I recovered my presence of mind and backed off to get my camera. But the owl likewise came to itself, and, flying across the stable, alighted at a hole in the partition which led into an outer shed which was entirely open on one side. If once it got out there, it was a "goner" for me.
Seizing my camera and tripod which I had stood up outside the door, in as few words as possible I told Ned what was up and sent him around on the run to keep the Owl from flying through. When he appeared the owl faced backward toward me, seemingly undecided what to do. Calling to Ned to wait, I planted the camera in the greatest hurry, focused on the bird, and exposed two plates, long-timed, of course, in such a dark place, but fortunately the queer little subject kept quite still.
Just as this was done, the owl decided to flee from Ned, and came back into the shed. Ned stopped up the hole, and then we all tried to catch Mr. Saw-whet, one of us guarding the entrance, as there was no door.
I threw my cap over the owl and it fell to the floor. We each made a grab for it and there was a general mix-up, but somehow the bird which so many people think is blind by daylight dodged through the array of legs and hands, flying out of the door. "Well, I never!" I exclaimed in disgust. "What made you so awkward, Ned?" "Yes, how about yourself?" he retorted.
Severe winter weather is liable to bring certain rare boreal owls to us from the North. The best known and most beautiful of these is the Snowy Owl, that splendid white bird which we associate with the polar bear and icebergs. There is apt to be a flight of them in early December, if at all, and one is liable to meet a specimen anywhere inland, though the seacoast is the best sort of region to find them. I have met but one in my life, on a salt marsh. Another greater rarity is the Great Gray Owl, a Northern species closely related to the Barred Owl, but larger. I have never seen it alive.
The severe winter of 1906—7 brought to us many Northern birds. On the twelfth of November, 1906, a lady was driving along a road in the outskirts of the town where I live. She came upon an Indian woman who was examining something lying in the road. It was a small owl which had somehow perished. Thinking it a "cute" little thing, she brought it to me to have it mounted. I was not at home, but met her at the post office. "Could I get you to stuff it for me?" she asked. "Really," said I, "I don't see how I can. I am just going away, and am very busy." But she looked so disappointed that I relented and took it, knowing that it would keep a long time in the cold weather. It was getting dark and the owl appeared to be a Saw-whet. I stuffed it in my pocket, and on reaching home tossed it up on a shelf in the woodshed, where it remained for weeks. Finally I got it down one afternoon and was at once impressed by its size, for I now saw that it was nearly as big as a Screech Owl. "That's no Saw-whet," my wife exclaimed, as I rushed for the reference books. "Richardson's Owl!" I shouted. "What a find!" It proved to be the second one ever taken in Connecticut, the only other having been recorded by Dr. William Wood, away back in 1861. To this day I have not gotten over the sensation which comes over me when I think of how near I came to missing such a rare find.