Urban nature: Owls go to town in search of fall food
Article Date: 2004-12-09 Source: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com
By Maria Dolan
Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. - Owls have been a harbinger of death in English poetry, and a felicitous sign to ancient Greeks (who had a coin stamped with the image of an owl).
Seattleite Aaron Martin took his sighting this October as the arrival of
extremely good luck.
''It was exciting,'' he says. ''I had never seen an owl in the city before.''
He had also never imagined his first opportunity would happen on a busy urban
The fledgling birder and owl enthusiast was running an errand downtown when he
stopped short at spotting the unexpected bird in a streetside tree. Momentarily
baffled, Martin scrambled for the Sibley bird guide he happened to be carrying
to confirm what he'd seen: a sleepy-eyed barred owl perched just 15 feet above
him near the busy corner of Fourth and Pike. A photo of the owl appeared in the
newspaper that week.
Martin, who has visited city parks at dusk in search of the raptors, is just one
of a Seattle-area clutch of owl enthusiasts who know what many urban dwellers
don't: This character of myth and fairy tale shares the city with us.
Some Northwest native owls, such as the spotted owl, require more dense habitat
than the city can offer, but others such as barred, barn, great horned and
western screech owls are regularly found here.
And infrequent visitors such as short-eared, long-eared, and northern saw-whets
thrill birders when they're sighted. The raptors have nested in several Seattle
parks, usually those with ample woods such as Discovery, Schmitz, Lincoln and
At Sand Point Magnuson Park, barn owls have sometimes found homes in unused
buildings. (Owls don't generally build nests, but either confiscate those of
other birds, such as crows, or use tree cavities).
One rarely-seen species, the fluffy white Arctic-dwelling snowy owl, appears in
large numbers in our area only about every 7 to 10 years, in what is called an
"irruption," as young owls leave home ground looking for food.
All shapes and sizes
Owls seem to excite even non-birdwatchers, perhaps because, like bald eagles,
they are raptors with keen eyesight and sharp talons, but are mostly nocturnal
and thus rarely seen.
Their many unusual adaptations make them fierce hunters of small mammals and
Asymmetrically-placed ears help them determine a sound's direction, and their
night vision is 10 times better than ours. An owl can rotate its head about 270
degrees (not all the way around, as is often believed), and the birds range in
size from very small (the saw-whet may be only three ounces — no bigger than a
robin) to hefty specimens such as the four-pound great horned, capable of
catching a goose.
Female owls are usually larger than males.
Though the raptors rarely attack humans, exceptions include swooped-upon joggers
at St. Edward State Park in Kenmore. Owls usually restrict their diet to smaller
mammals such as rats and mice, and may eat several a day.
Humans are generally bystanders in an owl's daily drama. At West Seattle's Camp
Long, for example, a landscape that draws great horned, screech, saw-whet and
barred owls also lures the public for popular evening walks called "owl prowls."
"Usually they [park visitors] are extremely excited," says Jeanie
Murphy-Ouellette, Camp Long naturalist. "Really respectful and in awe. It's very
The naturalist has herself encountered several owls, including sighting a tiny
saw-whet that she describes as "all eyes," boldly holding its perch in a park
cedar tree as another observer sketched its picture.
Raptors on the roam
Autumn is a particularly good time to see owls in unlikely places, according to
Woodland Park Zoo raptor keeper Tom Aversa, who finds an October owl at Fourth
and Pike not completely out of character.
"Fall is when you'll most likely see dispersing owls in odd habitats — usually
young owls looking for food or habitat," Aversa said. (May is another peak for
activity, when owls are busy catching food for their young.) As the season turns
to winter, diminished cover makes the birds more visible than at leafier times
One thing is certain: If the urge to go owling on a cold fall or winter evening
overcomes you, you'll be in good company. Aaron Martin and a friend returned
downtown at midnight, unable to resist checking whether the barred owl was still
on its perch. It was.
Murphy-Ouellette admits to lost sleep on camping trips because of the birds,
whose "mysterious, drawing call" resounds through the night landscape.
"There have been times I've just gotten right out of my tent to go find them,"
Maria Dolan of Seattle is co-author with Kathryn True of "Nature in the City:
Seattle" (The Mountaineers Books, 2003).
Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from http://seattletimes.nwsource.com and placed here for comment.
OwlPages.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.
2010-09-02 - Judge orders government to revise plan to protect northern spotted owls by Eric Mortenson - Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
2008-08-24 - Spotted owl's diminishing numbers have some fearing species is doomed by Warren Cornwall - Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
2007-04-26 - Environmentalists say feds trying to weaken spotted-owl forest plan by Warren Cornwall - Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
2006-11-14 - Seattle activists sue to stop logging - Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
2005-11-08 - Audubon Society Sues Over Spotted Owl by Gene Johnson - Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
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On 2009-12-26, spoon dickey wrote: "I was throwing a squeaky ball for my Leonberger dog in Seattle's Viretta Park at dusk. He caught my first toss on the bounce and squeaked the ball a few times on the way back. As I tossed the ball again, a dark silhouette glided overhead...an owl perhaps, attracted by the squeaking of the ball and looking for dinner."
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