Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, February 16, 2018

Sax-Zim Birding Festival and the Great Backyard Bird Count

Great birding spot, or the greatest birding spot?

This weekend is a big one for me—it’s the Sax-Zim Birding Festival centered in Meadowlands, and I get to be the keynote speaker: I'll be talking about how birds survive winter.

This also means I get to spend the weekend with my good friends Chuck and Gail Prudhomme, who live on the Little Whiteface River. When I was doing regular Big Days, my team used to stay in a lovely cabin on Chuck and Gail’s property. We always started with me getting up, at 2:30 am. I’d head to the outhouse first to try to call in a Barred Owl. Most people are too impatient with owls. I’d call two or three times, then head back in the cabin to get dressed. By the time our team of four was ready to set out, at least one and often a pair of Barred Owls had silently flown in. At that point, we'd call back and forth a bit. Only once did I get a response from the direction of Chuck and Gail’s house, in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Chuck’s. But even that year, the real owls flew in before we left. And even in the dark at 2:45 am we usually heard at least a couple more species before we headed out.

I also rented Chuck and Gail’s cabin once when my daughter was home from college—she and I had a wonderful mother-daughter bonding experience there, just the two of us on a beautiful August evening. I’ve only spent a bit of time at Chuck and Gail's in winter, but I’m looking forward to making sound recordings at their bird feeders this time. And the best thing, of course, will be getting to spend time with them again.

Great Gray Owl

Registration for the festival has been filled for quite a while—Meadowlands is tiny, and so they set maximum registration at 150. The big draw, of course, is winter owls, and this year promises to be good. I always have mixed feelings about that—the Great Grays and Northern Hawk Owls come for the meadow voles in the open boggy habitat; the boreals for our lovely woods where they try to sit with their eyes mostly closed in hopes of being unobserved, or when they’re in desperate straits where they try to hunt without distractions.

But the moment people spot them, all bets are off. For some reason, our species—the one species on the planet that includes rocket scientists and Red Cross nurses—isn’t very smart or kind about wildlife, perhaps especially owls. I’ve talked to several people this winter who saw people walk straight toward owls, which invariably got the owl distressed enough to fly off. I’ve heard even supposedly knowledgeable birders claim that this isn’t harmful—birds fly when they’re stalked by natural predators, too—but there are a heck of a lot more of us than natural predators. Every time we disturb an owl, we make it easier for it to be spotted and harassed by crows or jays, or even chickadees. Chickadees can’t hurt even a tiny saw-whet or boreal owl, but their tiny obscenities do alert larger birds that can harm the owl. Many bird guides do their darnedest to keep their groups at a respectful distance—that’s what spotting scopes are for. Sometimes, of course, even the most respectful birders get very close to an owl, but that depends on the owl flying in, not the birder walking ever closer and closer.

Boreal Owl

My very best photos of a Boreal Owl ever were taken in Two Harbors. Russ and I had been looking for one, and then Jim Lind spotted us and came down to visit. We were chatting away for several minutes before we looked up and there it was! We watched it as it even caught a shrew. And the sun was behind us, so all my photos show it in perfect or at least pretty good light.

Boreal Owl

Of course, most of my Boreal Owl photos are of birds with their eyes mostly closed—the way they try to keep their eyes while roosting, because those round yellow eyes are a clear signal of danger to other birds, which will try to drive away the little guy. I see way too many photos of owls looking alarmed, clearly by the photographer.

Boreal Owl

For me, the first rule of birding is “Above all, do no harm.” With luck, respect and generosity to the birds will prevail at this weekend’s festival.

This weekend isn’t just the Sax-Zim Bog Festival—it’s also the Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon. So I’ll be entering every bird I see into eBird. It used to be that we eBirders had to submit our sightings to the Great Backyard Bird Count separately, but now the birds entered in either site go into the same database.

This late-winter count gets numbers quite different from the early-winter Christmas Bird Count, and uses an entirely different protocol—for the GBBC, you count every bird you see, keeping track of where you saw it. You don’t need to be part of any official group, staying within a specific count circle. The data helps us keep track of bird movements in different winters, which is important for tracking population trends.

All you have to do is go to or to participate. If you’re reading this after the weekend is over, you can still submit the birds you saw this weekend at When you register, which is free, you can opt out of receiving emails from Cornell or Audubon. I support both organizations because they provide so much valuable information for the general public as well as for scientists and conservationists, but you don’t have to give them money or read their emails to get to use their valuable services.

The cool thing about eBird is that it will keep track of your birds for you, so once you’ve submitted data, you can then use it to effortlessly keep track of your lifelist, year list, backyard list, and county lists.  And on top of that, the data helps scientists protect those very birds. If you’re not using eBird, this weekend is a great time to start. If you’re going out to see birds, great! If you’re stuck indoors, you can report just what you see looking out the window. It’s fun, it’s valuable for both scientists and the birds they study, and it’s the right thing to do.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Superb Owl Sunday, and Mass vs. Volume

Great Gray Owl

The first Sunday of February tends to coincide with important annual rituals for many Americans. I spent the day, which I call Superb Owl Sunday, birding with my friend Lisa trying to find a superb owl, or even a standard one. Many more Americans call that day of the year Super Bowl Sunday and watch a football game rather than spending the day in nature looking for owls. Based on what we saw, we could have predicted the football game’s outcome: we encountered several Bald Eagles but not a single person who we could be sure was a patriot.

Unfortunately, we did not spot any owls. I’m afraid an owl tragedy earlier in the week may have caused our bad luck. My friend Erik Bruhnke, who has been staying with us this winter, came upon a dead Great Gray Owl on a roadside a bit northeast of Duluth. The poor bird’s body was in excellent condition except for being dead—it was presumably killed in a car collision. Erik salvaged it for an educational institution, but had to keep it at our house until he worked out a time to drop it off.

We took a few photos of it—there are some extraordinary features of owls that living birds hate to show off. I could tell that my little education owl Archimedes did not like me to show his ears to people, so I don’t approve of bird banders or other people pulling the facial disk forward to show the ears of a banded or education bird—I think the gush of air into the ear must hurt. When I want to show what owl ears look like, I use photos I took back after the infamous Halloween snowstorm of 1991. There was no way migratory owls could get food under that heavy, deep cover, and so people were finding dead owls, especially Long-eared Owls, as they shoveled out. So I photographed the ears, behind the facial disks, of an owl on its way to the Bell Museum.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

I am dismayed to report that I didn’t even think to photograph this poor dead Great Gray Owl’s ears—that would have been truly fascinating, because their ears are humongous.

I did photograph the primary wing feathers, and got pretty good close-ups of the leading edge of the outermost one. That feather is responsible for the absolute silence of the owl’s flight—the rather stiff edge looks like a comb, the tiny teeth breaking up each wing’s whoosh into more than a hundred tiny whooshes.

Great Gray Owl Primary Wing Feathers

I don’t think any bad Karma could be associated with those photos. The bad Karma that kept me from seeing a single owl on Superb Owl Sunday was because of another photo I got. The owl was huge—roughly 2 ½ feet long with a five-foot wingspan. That prompted me to weigh it—it weighed merely 3 pounds, which is on the heavy, well-fed side for a Great Gray. These birds are just feathers and spirit, and not a whole lot else.

I couldn’t help but compare that huge yet featherweight body with my dog Pip. She’s a tiny, fluffy dog, easy for me to pick up and carry with one hand; Pip weighs about 9 pounds. That gave me the idea to set her on the floor next to the owl for a size comparison. She did not like the idea, though she cooperated and was respectful of the poor owl, who was beyond caring. Sure enough, Pip is noticeably smaller than the owl, yet she weighs three times as much!

Density vs. Mass

This all set me to wondering why the word “massive” is usually used to describe things of large volume, not mass. I’ve often read that the Great Gray Owl is massive, while no one larger than the tiniest mouse would ever describe Pip as massive—even our backyard squirrels laugh at her. Yet she’s fully three times more massive, in literal mass, than the largest owl in North America. Now I have a photo demonstrating the difference between mass and density, but it came at the cost of being punished on Superb Owl Sunday. With the Minnesota Vikings, all I can say is, “Maybe next year.”

Friday, February 2, 2018

Stop Bird Collisions with Zen Wind Curtains

The Vikings’ US Bank Stadium was built with bird-killing glass despite how many of us tried to persuade them to build it of a safer, more energy-efficient material, such as the glass in the new Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. A lot of our own houses are also built with bird-killing glass windows, but it would be prohibitively expensive to put in all new windows. This week I talked with Jeff Acopian, a Pennsylvania engineer who invented a reasonably inexpensive yet very effective solution for protecting birds from window collisions, researched and endorsed by the one scientist who has been focusing on window kills his entire career, Dr. Daniel Klem. Jeff told me more about his Acopian BirdSavers, which he nicknamed Zen Curtains.

Jeff Acopian
 L: Hi, Jeff!

J: Hi, Laura! We actually call them Zen Wind Curtains, because when they blow in the wind, it has kind of a calming effect on people.

L: That's even cooler!  Did you have any personal experiences with bird collisions that made you motivated to do something about the problem?

J: Yes. Back in the early 1980s, we had birds that were hitting our house—our home in Pennsylvania. And it was really very distressing to us. It seemed like a lot of the birds we saw dead were interesting species as well, which was even more distressing. The rarest bird we ever saw was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I never even knew they existed here. This was when I was in my teens. We saw this dead bird--it looked so strange because we'd never seen one alive.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

J: And we've also had thrushes, juncos, and cardinals...just typical—any bird that flies around. We figured we wanted to fix this problem. I don't know if you remember back in those days, they had these beaded curtains that people would hang in their doorways?

L: Oh, yes--Rhoda had those on the Mary Tyler Moore Show

J: Right. So what we did was take those beaded curtains apart and we hung each of those strips of beads about 4 inches apart on the windows outside, and that worked! It stopped birds from hitting the windows. 

J: So those beads lasted for many years, and finally they started to deteriorate, and we couldn't find those beads anymore so we hung thin bamboo poles. And that worked as well, but it looked horrible. And finally I got the idea to hang para-cord, which is parachute cord. And that works very good, and looks very good, and it's easy to do. 

L: I'm curious how you even thought of parachute cord. Do you have experience with parachutes? 

J: Well, actually, yes. Back in the '60s my dad used to parachute. He was one of the first people to do sport parachute jumping. All I know is I wanted to put something there that would replicate the beads and replicate the bamboo poles, and it seemed like parachute cord would be good if it worked, because it's supple, it lasts long, and it looks good. 

J: People who haven't actually seen BirdSavers, they see the words cords on the window and they think, "Oh, boy! That's gonna look horrible!" But then when they actually see BirdSavers on a window, their opinion changes, because they look so good and they don't really obstruct the view. And people can do it themselves if they want to. We actually give DIY instructions on the BirdSavers website on how to do that, but I know a lot of people won't want to make them, so we will make them for people. But, really, the idea is just to get the message out there that this can be done easily.

L: Describe what's involved—how close together are they, how long are they, how do you suspend them from the window?

J: We put them about 4 inches apart. Four inches is a good number. The ones that we make stop about an inch and a half or so above the glass, so it looks nice—you can see the bottom of the cords. And there's various ways to attach them at the top, and various ways to attach each individual cord. 

J: I actually know someone who wrote me an email from Sweden. They made BirdSavers but they put curtain fixtures on the outside of the window, so at certain times they would roll them back just like a curtain. So they did that with BirdSavers. 

L: I have a link to BirdSavers on my blog along with windows with Zen Wind Curtains. I asked Jeff what he most wanted us to remember. 

J: There's a lot of people who don't care if they kill birds at their windows. That I know. But  I also know there's a lot of people who do care. I really want people to know about BirdSavers. It's such a simple, elegant, aesthetically pleasing, inexpensive solution to a major problem. I just don't know of any other solution like that. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Minnesota Vikings' Curse of the Bird-Killing Glass

Vikings Poster

On Sunday, the Super Bowl will take place in a tragically flawed new stadium, much of it constructed of bird-killing glass. That is of course why the Minnesota Vikings are not going to be playing in it in the Super Bowl. If there were any question that it was the Curse of the Bird-Killing Glass that doomed the Vikings, the fact that the team was dispatched by Eagles should dispel all doubt.

Dr. Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania has spent his entire career studying the issue of bird collisions with glass, starting in the 1970s when not one conservation organization considered the problem a serious one. After decades of research, when he presented a paper suggesting that his conservative estimate of the number of birds killed at windows annually in the United States was between 500 million and a billion, some prominent ornithologists pooh-poohed his conclusions. But as they finally started doing their own research into the issue, their own studies affirmed Dr. Klem’s numbers and the horrifying magnitude of the problem. Windows and house cats, like heart disease and cancer, are indeed the top outright killers of birds in the United States.

In recent decades, Dr. Klem has been tirelessly working with glass manufacturers to come up with glass that is visible to birds. On the Muhlenberg campus, some of the glass is fritted—cut with a pattern making it visible to birds. Fritted glass has the additional advantage of being significantly more energy conserving than plain glass—both those factors led the Dallas Cowboys to build their new stadium using fritted glass.

Since 2012, all new construction built with public funds in Minnesota is supposed to meet sustainability guidelines, including energy conservation, that fritted glass would have met, but the building plans with energy squandering, bird-killing glass got grandfathered in despite the new requirements. Ever since the plans were first revealed in 2012, the birding and conservation communities tried hard to get the glass changed. My friend Sharon Stiteler, author of 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know, who is also known as Birdchick and is a long-time Vikings fan, was quoted by Gwen Pearson in Wired saying, “Holy crap, that’s gonna kill a lot of birds.” Dr. Klem said, “You’re building a bird killer.”

Although conservationists were supposed to be able to study birds killed by the glass, a January 31 article in USA Today pointed out that the 60 dead birds collected this fall were not the only ones killed. There was evidence that birds were disposed of by stadium employees, killed in inaccessible areas of the stadium, and removed by scavengers or the public. Injured birds may have flown off and died of head or spinal injuries away from the stadium complex. And there were days when no one was allowed near the stadium, and days when no volunteers were available to search for carcasses. So the estimate of 360 birds that could be killed by U.S. Bank Stadium in a three-year period “significantly underestimates true mortality,’’ according to the preliminary report.

Ironically, the exact same company that manufactured the glass for the Dallas Cowboys was under contract for the glass for the Vikings, too. Changing the contract when the problem was publicized would have cost about a million dollars more—less than a tenth of one percent of the more than billion dollar price tag. To fix the issue at this late date would cost $10 million. As Josh Peter wrote for USA Today Sports, “Some people will blame the “dumb birds.’’ But it’s the people who failed to address the problem years ago who are the real Dodo birds here.”

It can be prohibitively expensive to replace our windows with bird-safe glass, especially for regular human beings without public funding and a multi-billion dollar football franchise. But Jeff Acopian created Acopian BirdSavers, an affordable and extremely effective way we can treat the windows on our houses to make them genuinely bird safe. I talked to Jeff by phone this week; tomorrow I'll play part of our conversation about his wonderful Zen Wind Curtains.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Where Are the Birds?

Blue Jay

For quite a few years now, I’ve been getting letters and emails from people wondering why they’re not seeing as many birds as they once did. I received one such email this week. Mike writes:
I feed birds a variety of seed, but have observed an obvious decline in numbers.  Not as many Blue Jays, Pine Grosbeaks, and woodpeckers, and for the first time in years the redpolls have not found my nyjer seed feeder.  I still see many chickadees and nuthatches.  Is there a real reduction in numbers, or is it in my local area, or could it be something that I am not doing?
Since it’s the last day of National Blue Jay Awareness Month, I’ll start with Nature’s Perfect Bird. Blue Jays are declining somewhat. Based on Breeding Bird Survey numbers since 1966, their numbers fluctuate here in Minnesota but show no overall decline.

An actual decline is more noticeable in Wisconsin:

and especially over the whole United States. 

Blue Jays are few and far between during some winters, but no one has teased out their complicated migration patterns. They concentrate in winter in areas with abundant oak trees. One or two have been hanging out somewhere in my neighborhood, but I've only heard and/or seen them a handful of times this year so far.

Common Redpoll

Redpolls, siskins, Pine Grosbeaks, and crossbills are "irruptive" species, so we expect big numbers some years and small numbers or even none in other years. But in irruption years, the numbers do seem to be lower than they used to be. This year, redpolls have been pretty abundant at the feeders in the Sax-ZIm Bog up near Meadowlands, but not in my yard. On Monday, Jan 22, about 250 showed up in my yard and remained for a few hours, but they disappeared at about 2 pm and that was it--not a single one since! It used to be that when redpolls were in northern Minnesota in good numbers, I always had at least a few in my yard, but as their overall population decreases, they can stick to more natural habitat without needing to spread into marginal habitat in town. Unfortunately, they breed further north than breeding bird survey road transects extend, so we don’t have data for them in summer.

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeaks are around in pretty good numbers in areas like Isabella and the bog, but I've only had a small group for an hour or so all winter. They don’t breed in the eastern United States. In Canada, their numbers swing wildly, but are trending downward.

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Pine Grosbeaks in Canada

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins also show wild fluctuations. In their case, especially survey-wide, they’re showing a significant downward trend.

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Pine Siskins in Minnesota

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Pine Siskins in Wisconsin
Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Pine Siskins in the entire United States
What is happening to cause declines of the northern birds is too complex to attribute to a single cause. More and more swaths of northern forest are managed for pulp with shorter rotations, keeping many trees, especially hardwoods, from reaching the age for seed production. Several northern species feed their young spruce budworms, and we spread Bt over more and more northern forest to control that. The Bt isn't at all toxic to birds, but it wipes out their primary protein source for their young. Winter finches are also killed by cars in fairly high numbers because they’re drawn to the salt and grit we use on highways in winter. Another factor reducing the numbers of a lot of our winter birds is the huge amount of clear-cutting in Canada for oil extraction via tar sands. An incredible amount of forested habitat has been destroyed for this.

Evening Grosbeak

When flocking birds decline, they may seem as abundant as ever in quality habitat even as they disappear from more marginal habitat. So people in the best habitat are sometimes complacent as the birds decline in places like Duluth. Back in the '90s some listeners pooh-poohed me for complaining about Evening Grosbeaks disappearing, but now they've become rarities everywhere.

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Evening Grosbeak numbers Survey-wide
Red-bellied Woodpecker

On the other hand, cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers are spreading north, so we can see more of them than we used to in our backyards.

I have had one or two Red-bellied Woodpeckers almost every day this year--they were extremely rare back in the 80s and 90s, but are expanding their range northward. They are more likely to be found in Duluth than in wilder habitat up here, because they mostly focus on hardwood trees, especially in the open habitat of neighborhoods rather than in genuine woodlands, and because one of the factors that helped them become established up here was bird feeding.

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Red-bellied Woodpeckers in Minnesota

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Red-bellied Woodpeckers in Wisconsin

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Red-bellied Woodpeckers survey-wide

Cardinal: male

Cardinals have also expanded up here, and usually I have one or two at least, but this winter I've only heard them once from my yard--I haven't seen them in my yard at all yet. My desk where I work is set at a window where I can see many of my feeders, so I'm not missing much, but there hasn't been much to miss.

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Northern Cardinals in Minnesota

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Northern Cardinals in Wisconsin

Breeding Bird Survey Trend: Northern Cardinals Survey-wide

Except for the day that I had the redpolls, I've had very few regular birds in my yard this winter. But as the snow started falling on January 30, I started seeing more. And as birds deplete natural food resources through February and into March, more winter finches will turn up again, before returning north to breed. Those of us committed to helping birds take joy where we can. And Nature's Perfect Birds the Blue Jays, and our good old chickadees, spread joy no matter what.

Black-capped Chickadee

Once in a Blue Moon

Blue Jay

Just about every month, we have one full moon. Not every single month—this February will not have a full moon at all. To make up for that, January has two. Tonight’s full moon, the second this month, is what many people call a blue moon. And whenever a month has a blue moon, I declare it National Blue Jay Awareness Month.

Why should we be more aware of Blue Jays than of any other bird? This year March happens to have a blue moon, too—though oddly enough, that fourth full moon of the year happens to be called the pink moon. Maybe when the moon is pink, everyone should become more aware of the Pink-headed Warbler of Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico,

Pink-headed Warbler (Ergaticus versicolor)
Photo by Dominic Sherony via Flickr and Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

or Lewis’s Woodpecker,

Lewis's Woodpecker

or the Pink-footed Goose,

Pink-footed Goose

or the most adorable bird in the universe, the Cuban Tody.

Cuban Tody!!

But there are only 12 months in the year, and at most only 13 full moons in a year. It would take almost a millennium to give every bird on earth its own awareness month, and more than 83 years to give just every bird in the United States and Canada its own awareness month.

Maybe instead of a whole month, we could give different birds their own awareness day. On the first day of winter, what Robert Frost called the “darkest evening of the year,” we should all grow more aware of crows, ravens, and other dark birds. Maybe on national holidays we should celebrate the Eastern Bluebird for its red, white, and blue plumage,

Eastern Bluebird

or the Painted Bunting because it’s more intensely red and blue even if it’s missing the white.

Painted Bunting

On Catholic holy days we could try to be more aware of Northern Cardinals, who were given their name for their color, which matches the garb of Roman Catholic cardinals.

Northern Cardinal

If we devoted a single day to each species, it would take almost 28 years to give just our North American species their due. Over the 32 years I’ve produced For the Birds, I’ve archived 3,072 programs, in which I’ve mentioned 785 different species at least once. I’ve talked about Blue Jays, or at least mentioned them, in at least 348 programs, and about Black-capped Chickadees at least 409 times. Even during National Blue Jay Awareness Month, I figure a day without chickadees is a day without sunshine, yet my favorite bird appears in only about 13 percent of my programs.

I wish more of us were aware of more birds, from the common species in our everyday lives to the more secretive or rare ones, like owls, that we thrill at whenever we do luck into seeing one, to the ones that most people haven’t even heard of—the species that eke out their existences in our state, even our city, without most of us ever noticing. This world has so many real treasures, living and breathing gifts of inestimable value even if we get so consumed by materialism that we are blinded to so much that really matters. That’s why I started producing For the Birds in the first place, but also why I decided to create a National Blue Jay Awareness Month. It’s nice to focus a lot of attention on one common species, at least once in a blue moon.

Blue Jays aren’t likely to notice tonight’s full moon, or the lunar eclipse that will begin, at least the penumbral phase, at 4:51 am tomorrow here in Duluth, Minnesota. Unlike nocturnal migrants, Blue Jays tend to sleep through the night year-round. When I rehabbed and through all the years that I had my education Blue Jay Sneakers, I never noticed a jay stirring once it got dark. But if we humans wake up early and there aren’t clouds in the west, we may notice that moon will start turning red as the partial eclipse phase begins, here in Duluth at 5:48 am. Totality won’t start until 6:51, as the sky is brightening, and the maximum eclipse will start at 7:29, just 7 minutes before the moon sets here. People east of us will see even less of it.

Blue Jays will be waking up during the eclipse, but we’ll never know if they noticed. It’s a pretty safe bet they know nothing about blue moons, which are defined by our human calendar and acknowledged by only some of us anyway. Beyond that, we simply do not know what Blue Jays, or any other birds, think about celestial matters. Chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, sleeping in cavities, don’t see much of the moon at night ever, and I don’t know if they notice the moon in the daytime sky, either. What goes on in birds’ minds is a true mystery to us humans, with all our anthropocentric limitations. Brooks Atkinson wrote:
Although birds coexist with us on this eroded planet, they live independently of us with a self-sufficiency that is almost a rebuke. In the world of birds a symposium on the purpose of life would be inconceivable. They do not need it. We are not that self-reliant. We are the ones who have lost our way.
Clay-colored Thrush

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Owl tragedy

David Bartlam found this poor dead Great Horned Owl in Proctor, off I-35.

On Tuesday, I talked a bit about the many northern owls turning up in the Duluth area recently. Tragically, not all the owl sightings have been happy. I’ve heard a few accounts of Snowy Owls being struck by cars, and of a Boreal Owl found dead. But perhaps the saddest story was sent to me by David Bartlam, who came upon a dead Great Horned Owl in Proctor along I-35. The poor bird must have been flying with its legs dangling, as owls so often do, and one toe got snagged in a chain link fence. David wrote that it was extremely cold that day, which would certainly have hastened the owl’s death. He returned four hours later, but the owl’s carcass had been removed. He sent the photo above. 

Good fences may make good neighbors in Robert Frost’s world, but not in the world of owls. Flying in the dark as they do, they know how to recognize and avoid dangerous obstructions in their airspace such as trees and buildings, and know from experience that just about everything at fence height—grasses, weeds, and the twigs in the upper parts of shrubs—is invariably yielding. The first time they hit a fence is usually the last. In December 2010, I got a heartbreaking message from Mary-Ellen Holmes, on her farm south of Superior. She’d found a Great Horned Owl electrocuted and frozen solid on her electric fence. It was stunningly beautiful and so lifelike except for being dead. She sent the poor thing to a nature center for education. 

When I went to the visitor center at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, someone had just delivered a Barn Owl that had collided with a barbed wire fence. It was impossible to safely extricate the bird from some of the wires, so the person who rescued it cut the wires in place. Refuge personnel were going to send the bird to rehab, but I’m not sure it was going to make it. It’s important for our own peace of mind as human beings to do what we can to help our fellow creatures on this little planet, even when it may well be futile, if we want to preserve our own humanity. 

Fortunately, not all owl-fence collisions are fatal, but when an owl is entangled, time is of the essence. In 2010, the Duluth News-Tribune reported that Kathy Paquette of West Duluth had found a Northern Saw-whet Owl ensnared in the mesh fence surrounding her garden. Fortunately, she found it while it was still doing well, untangled it, and brought it to an area rehabber. This bird was held for observation overnight, and released at Paquette’s place the next day. The paper quoted her, “Oh, my god,” she said. “That was a dream come true for me. I love animals. I like to save animals… I was in tears, I was so happy I found him before he was dead,” she said. 

I was with a birding group in Arizona back in the 1990s when we came upon a Barn Owl whose leg had been snagged in a barb on a fence. We couldn’t tell how long it had been there, but it was early in the morning on a day that ended up being very hot. It took both Kim Eckert and I, who had both handled lots of raptors, to free the poor bird. It had a couple of serious gash wounds and was going into shock. Luckily we were in time, and the rehabbers were able to release it where we’d found it several days later. 

Collisions with fences are the number one cause of death for female prairie grouse, and certainly a significant cause of death for owls. When fences are providing an important function, they obviously need to be kept in place, but when that function is over, it’s time to take them down. David Bartlam wrote, “I can't tell you how many times I have been with a dog that is running through the woods and crashes into an obscured fence, so I am sure it takes its toll on other wild creatures. The problem is the longevity of steel fences.” My own golden retriever, Bunter, got badly injured on an old barbed wire fence that had been discarded and rolled down a ravine long before. Removing and properly disposing of unnecessary fencing is work, but it’s also the duty of responsible landowners. Even in Robert Frost’s universe, it’s only good fences that make good neighbors.