Rare Owl Meets Its End in East Tosa – But Could Return
In a naturalized but postage stamp-sized back yard, an uncommon visitor meets its demise. Ed Haydin's long-eared owl, preserved in ice, may be mounted and eventually returned to Tosa.
Owls are among the most secretive and seldom-seen of wild creatures. The fly at night on silent wings and mostly lie up quietly all day, crouched in nature's camouflage against the bark of a tree or cozied up inside it in a cavity.
Even in death, seemingly, they can hide.
When Ed Haydin noticed something out of place lying in his East Tosa back yard, he thought for several days it was a chunk of wood.
"I have a pile of firewood nearby, and I thought one of my kids had picked up a piece and tossed it there," Haydin said. "No big deal, so I left it until I had some reason to go out back."
It was then Haydin discovered, to his surprise, that the object was an owl. It was splayed on its belly and frozen to the ground in a slight depression filled with ice.
Haydin contacted Wauwatosa Patch and sent along a photo. It appeared to the editor this might be no ordinary owl.
The kinds most commonly seen hereabouts are the gregarious little screech owl and the huge, fierce "I don't bother to hide" great horned owl. This was in between, and enough of its face could be seen that some strong field marks were evident, leading to a tentative identification as a long-eared owl.
Ornithologist Carl Schwartz – who was at the time in Eagle River with fellow birders seeking the extremely rare boreal owl – confirmed it was a long-eared.
A possible specimen for display
Long-eared owls are rare enough to be on the state's Threatened and Endangered Resources list, but only in the least protected status: "species of special concern." At the same time, it is ranked in the second-most "imperiled" category, S2, with its rarity making it "very vulnerable to extirpation from the state."
Department of Natural Resources naturalist Owen Boyle said he was quite surprised to hear of such a bird ending up in a Wauwatosa back yard, and thought it likely that a nature center or institution might want to collect it as a specimen for study and possibly for display.
Tim Vargo, naturalist at the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee, was equally intrigued by the find and eager to collect the bird for possible taxidermy, there being few long-eared owls on display in collections.
Haydin covered up his frozen owl with a plastic garbage can lid, and Vargo recently stopped by to collect it – or to try to.
"I've picked up a lot of dead animals in my time," Vargo said, "but never one that was frozen to the ground."
Chipping away at the ice did not avail, so it was decided to melt the bird out. A couple of buckets of hot water did the trick.
Vargo examined the bird and pronounced it in good shape, probably good enough for a full taxidermy mount.
"That would be, like, with its wings spread in some pose," Vargo said. "Otherwise, we'd do a 'skin mount,' which is basically a bird on a stick. It would still be useful for educational display."
No clue as to what brought owl to its end
Vargo could find no injury or other evidence of the cause of the owl's death, but said it could have been from a collision with a vehicle or a window, from disease or malnutrition, even from an extreme change of weather.
The long-eared owl is mainly a denizen of northern forests, where it breeds. In fall through mid-winter, though, it may migrate far to the south before starting back to the North Woods in late winter.
Speculatively, then, this owl was likely returning north to its breeding grounds, Vargo said, when it met its demise for whatever reason.
Vargo, for one, is convinced that the long-eared owl is not as rare as has been thought. He believes they are just so quiet and secretive, they are hardly ever seen and almost never heard.
"They are around here, on the County Grounds and in Havenwoods," he said. "They have long wings and hunt low over open meadows, and roost in forest edges. They can usually be seen flying only at late dusk, when they start hunting."
During the day, Vargo said, the long-eared owl hugs a tree trunk and rests, perfectly still and perfectly camouflaged.
"Once I was with a group looking for a couple of them reported at Havenwoods. They usually return to the same roosts. We looked and looked and didn't spot them, until a train came by and scared them up.
"They were 10 feet away from us."
A permanent home in Wauwatosa?
For Haydin, having the owl perish on his small residential property came to feel like something of an honor.
"There is something a bit spiritual about it because I've done my best to bring as much of nature here as I could," he said. "Twelve years ago, I planted a prairie in my back yard. And 10 years ago, my daughter and I transplanted a bur oak seedling there, so I guess now I have a little oak savanna.
"So, whether this bird was lost, or sick or injured, or just ran out of luck, it ended up here, at the foot of my bur oak tree. Maybe it felt some sense of familiarity, here in the middle of this built-up area."
It is possible that Haydin's owl could come back to Wauwatosa to stay.
If the bird does prove a suitable specimen for mounting, and if, as is being discussed, the Forest Exploration Center is able to permanently occupy the historic Eschweiler Buildings on the County Grounds, it could migrate there.
"That is entirely possible," Vargo said, "and would be appropriate."
"That," said Haydin, "would make me very happy, if that were to happen."
Nature notes: The long-eared owl
According to Vargo:
- The long "ears" of the species are not ears at all. They are just feather tufts, particularly prominent in this species, that are used either for territorial display or to break up the shilouette of the bird as further camouflage, or both.
- All owls' actual ears, invisible under their feathers, are offset on the sides of the head, with one slightly higher than the other, which allows them to "hear in 3-D" and locate prey by sound.
- Tests have shown that among all owls, the long-eared owl alone can hunt with perfect accuracy in absolute darkness by hearing alone.
- Owls can fly in complete silence thanks to a fringe of pointed featherlets along the leading edges of their wings – something other birds don't have. They are the ultimate "stealth" weapon of the animal world.