13 March 2001
I look at the snow and feel the cold, and wonder how anything can survive. At sunset, the temperature hovers near 8° and with the trees still, I bundle up against the fading day. I shiver with the thought that winter is nearly over, for on this night, it surely is not.
The wind stirs, then settles. As darkness arms my hearing, I realize that tonight will be my first in almost a year that I breathe the Minnesota night without the light of the moon. At least for now. In an hour, a pumpkin colored glow will appear in the southeast sky and darkness will be rendered insignificant. As I sit, it is serene and the stars and planets twinkle and shine as a great arc of darkness moves overhead from east to west.
A great-horned owl's hoots carry atop the snow and I record my first owl vocalization of the year. They have it easy in this landscape. Their mid-sized prey scurries atop the snows and among the branches. One kill means more than one meal. The task for boreal, northern saw-whet, great gray, or northern hawk owls is considerably more difficult. They must first locate and then secure the small mammals that stay hidden beneath thigh-deep snows. Prey that by its size alone, must be hunted over and over again to fuel a metabolic process that cannot even sputter. And then quadruple that for courtship and reproduction.
This year, at least so far, there are no signs that the owls are in a hurry to court. After 15 years, I know the cause but dread the effect, for it means that I may experience a silent spring. Yet, I also know that things could change. Small mammal data collected last fall by Dr. Rick Jannett suggests that, after a 3 year decrease, vole and mouse populations are increasing. The prey problem for owls in mid-March, then, might not be one of numbers but one of access.
In the meantime, I sit and listen. I know it is only a matter of time before the drab brown of last years grasses and leaves reappear in irregular blotches and the streams and rivers become brazen with snow melt. For the great-horned owl, springtime has arrived. Yet on this night, springtime is the furthest thing from my mind.
© W.H. Lane