29 March 2000
On the night when fog blanketed the surroundings and crescendos of beating grouse wings were the only breaks to silence, a lone owl sang from the top of a ridge in the boreal forest. His singing was an isolated event during an evening when factors beyond my comprehension shut down the songs of spring. He sang when no other owls would. He sang for a reason.
Two nights later, I followed my compass needle on a journey through a tabletop-flat stand of black spruce and its spongy mat of mosses. After 300 m, the hydrology and chemistry of the lowlands gave way to a gentle upslope. There, the forest floor cracked beneath my feet and the trees grew in a world of ephemeral moisture and nutrients. At the top of the ridge, compact jack pines stood beneath the bare crowns of decadent aspens. This, I told myself, is where he sang.
Even in fading daylight, the male boreal owl came in and sang his hushed songs. He flew to a cavity a stones-throw away from where I sat. The female flew in and perched 20 feet above me. Her head bobbed and shifted as she sized-up the 220 pound vole below her. As quiet as I was, my breathing and heartbeat must have sounded like tympani to her keen ears. My back and neck cried for movement, yet I did not want to lose my observational advantage. Twice the male flew towards her and attempted to copulate. He exhibited no subtlety, just clumsy attempts to quell his surging hormones. Silly teen-ager. She just wanted a vole.
The next night, I returned to the site as the sun tucked itself under the western horizon. Silhouetted by the fading hues of daylight the male came in, perched, and then transferred a rodent to his bill before flying to his cavity. He deposited the gift in the bottom of the hole and then popped up like at finger puppet at the cavity entrance. He sang softly, waiting for the female's reply. After 10 minutes, he left the cavity and moved to the dense pines, singing an emphatic song, looking for an answer in the darkness. Gentle winds were replaced by gusts and with the winds, he disappeared beyond the ridge.
In heavy rain and wind, I returned the next evening. The night had Gore-Tex written all over it. The male came in again, but this time he carried no gift. He sang near the cavity for 11 minutes before flying to the west. Over the next two hours, he did not return to the site and did not go through the predictable frenzy of courtship.
Over four nights, the female had gone from interested to absent. She has likely moved on to the next willing male, and will send him into the same somersaults of behavior and biology as her previous paramour. At some point though, her urge to move will give way to hormones and she will accept the cavity, and the gift at its bottom, and the male who delivered it.
Copyright © W.H. Lane