My Feathered Wildcat
I entered the flight chamber and approached my male owl as he stood on his favorite perch. I offered him a dead rat for breakfast and he reached out with his beak pulling it from my hand. Like a parrot, he grabbed the dead rat with his right foot and held it in front of him as if holding an ice cream cone. Then after a moment of studying the rat like a fine diamond, he bit into it and swallowed it whole.
I attempted to feed the female owl, but I could not find her. Concerned that she was sick or dead, I nervously searched for her. She was nowhere to be found. I then placed a small ladder up against their nest box to see if she was in it. Owls do not have the instinct to build a nest; in the wild, owls generally steal nests from other birds or make use of a hollow tree.
A year prior, I built them a nest box but they never used it, and sometimes seemed to avoid it. When I climbed to the top of the stepladder and peered into the hole, there she was crouched in the corner. Startled by my sudden appearance, she flinched and then hissed at me. Occasionally referred to as “feathered wildcats”, owls hiss like a mad feline when they are startled or defending themselves.
She was a European eagle owl, one of the worlds’ largest species of owl. Her six-foot wingspan fanned out to her sides made her appear even larger as her snapping beak echoed like firecrackers inside the box. Posing in a defensive posture, she stared at me with her human sized pumpkin orange eyes and followed my every move.
I reached out to feel her “keel”. The keel, also known as the breastbone, holds most of a bird’s fat reserves. This is the first place I look when checking the health of any bird. If the breastbone feels sharp and I am able grab it between my index finger and thumb, the bird is too skinny, and perhaps sick. If it is difficult or impossible to grab the keel, the animal is nice and fat. This does not always mean it is healthy, but is a good indicator if it is not.
As my hand slowly reached towards her, she reared backwards and spread her head feathers out like a cobra’s cape. Then after wailing a high pitched screech protesting my intentions, she bit me on the wrist.
With a beak powerful enough to snap the neck of a woodchuck, she latched on and held tight. I sat frozen for a moment hoping she would let go, but she would not.
My only hope was to try and pry her beak off my wrist. But when I reached my free hand out, she shot her right leg out from under herself like a spear and dug all four of her inch and a half long talons into my fingers. Her rear talon stabbed me between my pinky and ring finger, clear through and out the opposite side of my hand.
As if wearing a medieval torturer’s handcuffs, both of my hands began to throb and bleed. Like all raptors, an owl’s foot is designed like a ratchet that can lock tight like a vice grip whenever needed. It is their instinct to squeeze harder if the prey or threat squirms and fights. Unable to move, I was forced to grin and bear it.
Surprised at her aggression I softly said, “It’s okay girl, I just wanted to see if you are feeling well.” She angrily twittered and squeaked while continuing to hold on with all of her strength. Knowing I had a better chance in freeing my hand from her mouth rather than her foot, I slowly began to twist my wrist out from her beak. The more I twisted the harder she bit. Like playing tug-of-war with a fishhook, we struggled back and forth until my skin gave way with a blunt snapping sound. Satisfied that she had taught me a lesson, she immediately released my other hand.
As she settled back into her squatting position I noticed the reason for her defensiveness; she was sitting on an egg. Immediately I jumped off the ladder so as not to disturb her any longer.
I was ecstatic that they had bred, not only for the sake of possibly hatching a baby owl, but it also proved that the owls were perfectly comfortable with their living conditions. If they had any form of stress or uncertainty about their surroundings, they would have never attempted to reproduce.
I watched the owls from a comfortable distance for about ten days, only approaching to give them food and water. By the tenth night, the female seemed to spend most of her time outside the nest box. Nervous she might have been neglecting her motherly duties, I decided to intervene.
Early the next morning I looked into the chamber to see the female perched in the high corner. With her back to me, I climbed up to the back of the nest box and opened a small door which I had built for this very purpose. As I slowly opened the door, I shown a small flashlight into the nest and saw five eggs. They lay in a tight bunch and were cold to the touch.
My initial thought was to exchange the eggs for golf balls, assuming she would soon discard them when they did not hatch. But instead I decided to put a chicken egg in the nest. I then carefully carried the owl eggs to the house and put them in a warm incubator.
After two days of incubation I “candled” the eggs. Holding an egg up to an intense beam of light makes it possible to see the shadow of the chick inside. Originally candles were the light source, hence the name “candling”. Today there are machines specifically made for candling eggs; but I have never used them; holding the egg up against the lens of a slide projector does just as well.
Unfortunately the first four eggs were infertile. But as I lifted the fifth egg to the light I saw a baby owl the size of a dime, a web of blood vessels glowed around it as it fed life to the developing embryo. I placed the fertile egg back into the incubator, then tossed the four empty eggs into the woods to treat the local raccoons.
About two weeks had passed after placing the chicken egg in the nest when I saw something that almost knocked me off the ladder. Standing beneath the owl stood a proud baby rooster. She had incubated it enough to hatch it out and as of that moment seemed pretty content in caring for the hatchling. I tossed a few handfuls of chicken feed on the bottom of the nest box, and the rooster wandered about scratching and pecking the floor while “mom” stood guard.
The following morning, I returned to feed the rooster and thought tragedy had struck. The rooster was slumped over in the corner of the nest, covered head to toe in blood.
Did they finally realize it was a chicken and had killed it? Neither owl was in the nest box at the time so I reached in and removed the rooster.
As I grabbed the chick it began to squirm and kick until it slipped out of my hands and dashed across my backyard like a roadrunner..Well, I guess you’re not dead, little man.. I laughed. He burned rubber across my driveway, then tucked beneath a bush.
I reached beneath the bush and pulled him out. After carrying him over to an outside hose, I rinsed him off and searched for an injury. He did not have a scratch on him. I looked at his face and noticed he had a mouthful of white hairs. While pulling them out I realize what had happened to him. The owls tried to feed him a rat. Not knowing how to react to getting pieces of rat shoved down his throat, the poor chick became exhausted and became covered in rat blood during the process.
Remarkably, the owls truly thought that no matter how ugly this “owl” was, they would still take care of it. Owls will never think twice about eating a baby rooster, yet they will gently care for that same animal if convinced it is theirs. Needless to say, I had a rooster that could have used years of serious therapy.
As the owl chick continued to develop within the egg, I candled it everyday to observe its growth. I also began to cup the egg between my hands and hoot to it. An owl’s senses mature and brighten much like a light bulb on a dimmer switch and soon the owl would begin to hear my hoots through the egg’s shell.
After the twenty-ninth day of incubation, when I cupped the owl egg in my hands and hooted to it, the chick hooted back! The sound was more like a kitten meowing rather than an actual hoot, but it was a definite response. The chick had now developed enough to begin leaving the egg. I carefully returned the egg to the incubator and kept a close watch on it. By evening the owl began to “pip”, which is when they poke the first hole in the egg with their beak. Early the next morning the owl hatched from his egg as I held him in the palm of my hand.
Like an alien emerging from its spaceship after landing on a new planet, the owl chick kicked the last piece of shell from its wet feeble body. Totally helpless and shaking he looked like two wet cotton balls glued together. The larger of the two on top representing his gigantic head, which uncontrollably wobbled on a thin pencil neck.
Over the years I have had several eagle owls, as well as many different species of owl. One pair of owls no larger than a can of soda lived free in my bedroom for years. But, this particular owl is very special because it is totally “imprinted” to me, which means that according to him, I am his mother and I am also an owl. He feels perfectly comfortable around me just as a house cat would be to its caretaker.
This has given me the rare opportunity to learn first hand much about the hidden world of owls. Even to this day he teaches me more than I could ever learn from a textbook. He grew up in a hand-made nest situated beside my bed, and by jumping on my back as I slept, he would playfully tug on my ears with his beak to wake me for his night feedings.
Throughout his first weeks he had a voracious appetite and grew like a weed. He ate twice as much as his parents did when he was only the size of a softball. Within eight weeks, he grew from two inches tall to twenty inches tall, and by then was as big as his father but still looked like a fuzzy Muppet character.
As he continued to grow, he began exercising his wings and gained coordination. No bird.learns. how to fly – it is instinctive. But they have to learn how to maneuver and land. So his first attempts at flying looked somewhat silly. He was clumsy, and awkwardly flung his body from branch to branch. But with a couple weeks of practice he gained perfect control of his body and began to answer his primal urge to hunt.
On one particular night, I walked into the woods with the owl on my fist. It was late winter and the full moon reflected off of the snow, illuminating the entire forest with a warm glow.
As I cast the owl off of my fist, he flew up into a giant oak tree. Perching on a thick branch that reached thirty or forty feet into the forest, he stretched out both of his wings, then settled them in close to his sides. I never actively push him to hunt; I would much rather quietly stand by and see how he naturally acts. This usually means watching him sit like a statue most of the time, then occasionally hop to another branch for a better view of the forest. He did just that for about an hour when I noticed he heard something behind him. He spun his head 180 degrees and bobbed it up and down to locate the sound’s direction. Then, in a single motion, he turned himself completely around and swooped off the perch towards the forest floor.
When I caught up to him he was on the ground with his feet deep into the snow. As I knelt next to him, he revealed a six-inch long spotted salamander in his foot. I offered him a piece of steak which he promptly traded for the salamander.
Unbelievably, the salamander lived through the ordeal without a scratch. The owl’s feet were so big that his talons completely wrapped around the salamander instead of killing it.
How he captured that tiny amphibian is a real miracle. Yellow-spotted salamanders hibernate beneath the snow in the winter. Alcohol and proteins in the blood keeps them from freezing. Spring was near, and the salamander began to lethargically move beneath the snow as the temperature warmed. This was enough movement for the owl to locate the salamander’s exact position and capture it. Not by sight, but by sound. The owl never even saw the salamander until after he captured it.
Three-dimensional hearing is what makes owls achieve the seemingly supernatural ability. Their radar-like hearing can detect sounds ten times fainter than the human ear can detect.
Several unique adaptations make three-dimensional hearing possible. The most noticeable adaptation is the owl’s face. Unusually wide and round, these facial disks are adapted to funnel sound waves much like a satellite dish.
One ear opening is higher than the other, plus one ear is a round hole while the other is a slit. This adaptation aids in pinpointing the direction of its prey. Owls also have a moveable flap of skin controlled by muscles around the ear opening. This flap protects the ear and concentrates sound waves coming from behind.
Soft modified feathers called auriculars surround their ears. Auriculars lack “barbules” allowing a clear path for sound waves. Barbules are the parts of the feather which zip together to make it wind resistant.
To provide the perfect listening environment, an owl’s wing feathers have a soft covering of fuzz over them that muffles any flapping sounds during flight. This fuzz gives the owl the ability to fly silently like a moth. Not only does this allow the owl to track the hidden movements of its prey, but also gives it the ability to sneak up on its prey.
Owls can also see ten times more detail than a human during the day and equally as well at night. Their eyes are adapted to detect extremely low levels of light, even the darkest nights holds some level of light, sometimes undetectable to us but not to owls.
They detect this faint light because of an overwhelming thickness of receptors within the eye called rods. Rods are light detectors; humans have them but not nearly as many, which is why we are blind in the dark. But unlike owls, we have additional receptors called cones that detect color. Owls are color blind; which is a common trait among nocturnal hunters.
Also, the behavior of their pupils aids in their night vision. In the dark their pupils expand, just as ours do to allow more light in. But an owl’s pupils expand the entire diameter of the eye to let as much light in as possible. So owls eyes are completely black at night. They essentially become two wide open “black holes”, drawing in as much light as possible.
It is a myth that owls never blink. As a matter of fact, they blink more proficiently than humans. Owls have three eyelids, one eyelid blinks down, much like a human eyelid, another lid blinks from the bottom up and a third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane, blinks sideways much like a windshield wiper. The extra eyelids give the much needed protection to their sensitive eyes. When owls attack prey, their eyelids shut a split second before impact in order to protect the eyes. They also use their lids to protect their eyes while feeding their young. Despite an owl’s acute eyesight, they have trouble focusing on things extremely close to them. So the blurred vision of a baby owl may cause it to mistakenly peck the parent’s eyes while being fed.
I have never seen an owl sleep. Any owl I have seen that looked asleep was dead. During the day, owls hide and try to be concealed, but they are always fully aware of what goes on around them. I have lived with owls for over fifteen years: never once have I seen one sleep.
The saying “the wise old owl.” – don’t believe it. Owls are not very intelligent. People have assumed they were smart because their eyes face the front of their head resembling a human. It was commonly thought that “anything that looks human must be smart”. I am sure anyone reading these pages can think of several “humans” that might disprove that belief.
But do not be tricked into thinking owls are stupid. Quite the contrary, owls are so superbly adapted for survival that so called “intelligence” is of no use to them.
Owls dominate the night. Like ghosts they silently weave their way in and out of the forests giving only the slightest glimpse to few humans. Ounce for ounce, one of the most powerful animals on earth, they are perfectly adapted for a life cloaked in darkness. Yet even these finely tuned predators struggle day to day for survival, and only the best succeed. It is not easy to catch food with your feet. Like most birds of prey, eight out of every ten owls in the wild usually die before they are one year old. Most die at the cold and bony hands of life’s supreme predator, starvation. Starvation preys upon raptors just as ferociously as raptors prey upon their own quarry. It is just one spoke in the wheel that keeps the cycle of life rolling.
As I let the owl finish its steak, I placed the salamander back beneath the snow to live out the remainder of his lucky night. Then the owl jumped onto my glove and preened his feathers back into place.
Fortunately, by having a “safety net” my eagleowl is separated from the harsh realities of nature. He flies free and hunts at will, but whenever he fails to catch food, he does not perch closer to death, he lands upon my gloved fist for a guaranteed feast.
This luxury has made him somewhat lazy. Thankfully he can not read since he is sitting next to me as I write this, but it is the truth. Many animals, including humans, have a tendency to not try as hard when things are handed to them. But within every great hunter, lies an even greater opportunist.
Source by Rusty Johnson