(This 773rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 22, 2006.)
In my favorite of the author's Fables for Our Time, humorist James Thurber writes of "The Owl Who Was God." Noticing that the owl can see in the dark, the animals of the forest begin to think of him as the greatest and wisest of all animals. They also find that the owl can answer any question. For example, when a secretary bird asks him to cite another expression for "that is to say" or "namely", the owl wisely responds, "to wit." "Why does the lover call on his love?" asked the secretary bird. "To woo," said the owl. They ask the owl to be their leader.
The owl approaches the other animals in the daylight walking very slowly, which gives him the appearance of great dignity. "He's God," screams a hen and others take up the cry. But the owl, despite warnings, leads his followers onto the highway where most of them are killed by a speeding truck. Thurber's moral: "You can fool too many of the people too much of the time."
I thought of that fable when a few days ago a number of us stood watching a Northern hawk owl sitting calmly in the high limbs of a roadside tree. This owl clearly does not fit Thurber's description.
Northern Hawk Owl photo by Willie D'Anna
The hawk owl is a daytime owl, its actions much more like that of a hawk than an owl. Thus it is aptly named. Examined through a telescope, this bird appeared very alert, its bright yellow eyes only occasionally looking at us, more often searching the nearby farmlands for its normal prey, field mice. It even appeared to be talking to itself but I could not hear its vocalizations.
This is a handsome bird. A crow-sized owl, its fluffed out feathers give it a still larger appearance. To me it has an overall gray appearance with its breast barred with chestnut, its face outlined with distinctive black markings. William Brewster has described its flight as "perfectly straight, exceedingly swift, and very graceful."
This species is a very rare visitor to this region. It appears only on the local hypothetical list. In February 1988, Walt Listman reported one in Orleans County very near where this one has been found. Unfortunately, he did not provide the verification report necessary to add it to the formal list of regional birds. I recall spending two mornings searching for that bird, cross-country skiing miles across snow-covered fields. In all that time I only had a brief glimpse of what I thought was the owl sailing over a distant hedgerow, far from enough to convince others that I had seen it.
Internet directions led us to this winter's hawk owl along Lyndonville Road (Route 63), about a quarter mile north of Roosevelt Highway (Route 18). When we arrived we found Mike Morgante already observing it. According to nearby homeowners, this bird has already spent several weeks along this road and, if it is anything like the hawk owl I saw a few winters ago in the Adirondacks, it will probably stay in the area as long as it finds food.
The hawk owl is more at home in the northern forests of countries around the globe. In North America it is more often found at the latitude of Hudson's Bay and Alaska. Why individual birds like this one stray south into the United States is one of those mysteries that baffle ornithologists. Some believe that the birds leave their regular ranges when rodent cycles are at minimum providing them too little food. Others argue that almost the opposite occurs. They suggest that an abundance of mice leads the owls to raise too many offspring and younger or weaker owls are driven by competitors south out of their normal territories.
Because it is unfamiliar with humans, this species is notoriously tame. Whereas other birds would fly off with so many people approaching closely, this owl simply minds its own business giving observers excellent views.
If you do drive to Lyndonville to see this hawk owl, you should also search west along Route 18 for the snowy owl that has been observed on the ground in an open field. In late afternoon you can also look for short-eared owls and harriers coursing over fields near the corner of Dickersonville Road and Youngstown-Wilson Road in Niagara County.-- Gerry Rising