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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: All about the owls

A juvenile female snowy owl is perched on an earthen mound on Rices Point in Duluth Thursday afternoon. An eruption of snowy owls is occuring in the northern United States. (Clint Austin | Forum News Service)

For many years around this time of year, I get invited to spend a couple of hours with students attending TrekNorth High School during an after-school Envirothon learning session.

I always bring with me several animal pelts borrowed from the DNR Area Wildlife office in Bemidji. Bright and enthusiastic students listen and ask me questions about wildlife as I talk about animal natural history and share personal experiences I’ve enjoyed with various species of wildlife.

For part of the session their instructor Jennifer Aakre helped me set up her computer and projector so I could show students my favorite bird website, “All About Birds” from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I then asked the students what birds they might be interested in talking about. And in near unison they voiced their desire to talk about owls and to listen to owl vocalizations.

There are 19 species of owls in North America, 12 of which occur in Minnesota -- some are year round residents while others, such as the snowy owl, rarely. Our dozen owls include great horned, long-eared, short-eared, barred, burrowing, great gray, northern hawk, eastern screech, northern saw-whet, boreal, snowy and barn owl.

Though appearing to be the largest of all owls, great horned and snowy owls are actually heavier than great gray owls, but appear smaller because of plumage that is much less “fluffed” than its gray-colored cousin. A long tail, absent ear tufts, and the gray concentric circles on their facial disks that draw your gaze into the striking yellow eyes, are notable features of the great gray owl. No other large owl except for the distinctive looking snowy owl has yellow eyes and no ear tufts.

The closely related and abundant barred owl, of which belongs to the same genus (Strix) as its much larger great gray owl relative, is a possible look alike. However, the great gray owl is a rare, far-north bird of prey and therefore much less common than barred owls. Great gray owls range throughout the Rocky Mountains, much of Canada and Alaska, as well as northern Minnesota. Great grays seem to be more abundant in Minnesota on some years than others, possibly due to food shortages farther north.

Most Minnesota owls are nocturnal, but the great gray owl is a diurnal hunter as well as crepuscular and nocturnal hunters. Squirrels, chipmunks, rats and mice, shrews and rabbits and hares make up the bulk of larger owls’ diets such as great gray, great horned, and to an extent, barred owls, too. Additional prey species include other birds. Prey is captured by falling heavily upon its quarry and gripping tightly with its strong feet and talons.

An interesting fact about great gray owls and snowy owls is that they exhibit a surprising and peculiar tameness when each of these species are encountered in the wild.

Regardless of owls’ endearing and puzzling behaviors, observing owls in the wild leaves a lasting impression upon us. They command our attention with their large bright eyes staring back at us while providing us with a sense of awe. Indeed, with their seemingly unassuming dispositions, owls are among us here in Minnesota as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

This year’s influx of snowy owls into parts of northern Minnesota is providing birders with rare viewing opportunities. There have also been reports of owls being shot by poachers. If you observe poachers shooting or otherwise illegally taking owls and other protected species of fish and wildlife, call “Turn in Poachers (TIP)” line at (800) 652-9093. If you encounter injured owls, contact your local DNR office.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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