YESTERDAY AFTERNOON WAS A THRILL watching the nimble aerial acrobatics of several football-sized owls. They were short-eared owls down from the north for the winter. We think of owls as night birds however these owls hunt both day and night. Large farm fields producing grain and hay during the summer were snow covered, hosting untold numbers of small mammals such as mice and voles. A vole looks like a mouse but prefers to eat vegetation such as roots and seeds, is usually larger (4-6” long), and has a stubbier face and tail. They are also related to lemmings, which live in the far north and are loved by owls. Birds and mammals like weasels and muskrat are also eaten.
What was exciting for observers was deadly serious for the owls. The owls were upset with a northern harrier (also called a marsh hawk), which was in immediate competition for their food. Two owls flew circles around it midair. Owl talons were thrust toward the hawk, and an owl’s long wings were raised then slapped beneath it, chasing the hawk out to other fields.
The harrier was a beauty, a male, also called a “gray ghost” for its white body and black-tipped gray wings (females are brown). The owls got back to work flying low to the snow with a gliding, rocking motion and then abruptly circling back for another look or listen. Sometimes they gave short squawks/barks with an occasional sound like a cat’s mew. Did this cause prey to move? An owl would hover and dive to the snow. Then off to perch on a fence post or power pole. Feeding was short while standing on prey and looking in all directions for an attempted steal. The large vole’s head was pulled up and snipped off and swallowed. Next long strands of guts were pulled out and eaten and the body was chugged down last. After eating 1-2 small mammals an owl may stash more prey to carry it through bad weather.
Owls do not have a crop like other birds. They digest the food directly for 8-10 hours. After squeezing out the nutrients a pellet of bones, hair or feathers is coughed up. A man from a neighboring house walked the quiet farm road and stopped to talk. He was thoroughly enjoying the owl antics sometimes set against the blue Catskill Mountains. We exchanged remarks on the beauty of the day and how fortunate for him to live there.
The owls had no fear of people, perched at the tops of yard trees, and often passed by buildings. After about two hours it was dark and cold, time to go home. Eventually the owls would find a good place to shelter. There were many thick cedars near a ravine with room for the three owls observed and more. It was difficult to count them because they were darting all over. Sometimes a family unit winters together. Next month they will begin courting and move back up north to nest. How fortunate we have been to host them.