owltalk 2002


4 April 2002


No animals were harmed in the filming of this movie.


Over the course of three nights, I had narrowed my search for the male and now, with the pale light of day lingering in the western sky I waited, huddled against a downed white pine. I lay prone, in a position that has evolved into my one true position of immobility.


The male arrived, sang briefly from a tangle of spruce and fir, and then moved to his cavity. The female peeped in response and then resolutely moved towards him, disappearing into the warmth of her new home.

Ordinarily I would be recording the events as crooked, indecipherable lines of nocturnal penmanship into my field books. But on this night, I savored the brief respite from the arduous travel by snowshoes, and the navigation by stars and planets towards owls that sing at the limits of my reach. I watched and absorbed these tentative, first steps towards reproduction.


The next night, with winds rocking treetops and surveys unlikely, I went to formally introduce myself to the boreal owl pair. I carried, as I often do, my bal-chatri and a bevy of fat mice. I placed several mice beneath the wire mesh and cryptic nooses, and placed them beneath a sickly spruce.


Even before sunset, the male arrived from the east and vocalized once on his way to an adjacent white pine. When an owl moved to a perch above the mice, I waited. Then a second owl moved in and, with their interests solely on the mice, my heart started its programmed pounding as I awaited capture.


I could wax melodramatically here, but suffice it to say that over the next hour and a half, the male and the female hit the nooses 11 times without getting snared. I knew that to continue to interrupt their courtship would be the sign of an insensitive biologist, so I called in the infantry. I went to my truck, got my dip net and with a mouse in my pocket, returned to the owls. I placed the mouse in a snowshoe print and within 30 seconds, captured the male.


The mouse went back into my pocket and I banded and aged the male. He was kind of a runt, but he was a third year runt, which told me he knew what he was doing and wasn't afraid to let the nighttime know it. Before I released him, he vocalized from my hand and the female responded. I looked and she sat against the spruce bole, listening and watching as the mice chewed dried pasta in the North Woods night.


After releasing the male, I presented the female with yet another potential meal. Twenty seconds later, I began the process of banding and aging her. Interestingly, she was a "yearling", an owl still in her first year who had the good fortune of stumbling onto a male who would not mess around in the courtship process. I considered this promising.


When she was returned to the night, I gathered up the mice and left. I had interfered enough. The mouse was happy to reenter his world of pine shavings and food cubes.


Two days later, I returned to the cavity site. On my approach I looked at the cavity and it looked back; the female watching me with the distant stare of a slumber interrupted. Two nights ago, I was a participant at this site. Now, I will again become an observer.


W.H. Lane