As I traversed the slippery driveway to the mailbox on the night of February 15th I heard the distinct hooting of one of the resident Barred Owls. Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo; hoo-hoo-hoo-hoowah-wah. Ah, and so it has begun. The nightly serenating has commenced as the male woos his lady.
Courtship takes place in February and behavior involves a complex series of bobbing, weaving, wing flapping, and vocal presentations, mostly coming from the male. The female will occasionally interject with a noticeably higher pitched vocalization. As the male woos the female, he circles in, and with each presentation he slowly moves closer to her. Many males also notice much success in gift giving. Males tend to woo their mate with a fresh kill, which the female voraciously accepts and there is much noisy rejoicing from both parties. After quite a merry raucous the pair will fly off together and find some secret getaway to copulate. Barred Owls typically nest in a natural cavity measuring 10-13” wide and 14-21” deep, 20–40’ high in a large tree. They may add lichen, fresh conifer sprigs, and feathers (from their prey) into the cavity or onto an appropriated platform nest vacated by its former builder, that being a hawk, crow, or squirrel. 2-3 eggs are laid in late February to early March and hatch in late March to April. Incubation is mostly by the female with the male bringing his mate food. Mom tends to be the one sitting in the nest with her owlets while dad hunts and brings back food for his family. Owlets fledge in about 6 weeks. Owls will continue hooting throughout the spring so go outside and take a listen.
The courtship of Bald Eagles occurs in February and begins as an elaborate aerial display with the birds flying in circles. The male then dramatically swoops down upon the female. Meanwhile the female rotates her body so that she is flying upside down, feet up to catch the male’s feet. Talons locked, the couple plunges to earth! At the very last second, they release their grip on each other and swoop upwards together, thus confirming a new bond or renewing an old bond. How’s that for an adrenaline rush of, “I love you sweetheart and I promise to stay with you for life – now let’s go make some babies.”
Bald eagles mate for life and after recommitting to nest and nerve, the pair copulate and either build a nest or add to the prior year’s nest. Nests are designed with sticks, large and small, with the pair helping each other position them. Nests tend to be 5-6’ in diameter and 2-4’ tall in the top-most part of a large live or dead tree, close to the trunk, and below the crown. The female lays 1-3 eggs in March and the pair take turns sitting on the eggs to keep them warm and dry. Eaglets hatch in mid-April and the busy parents again take turns hunting for food for their rapacious young. Food consists mainly of fish as these are fishing birds who live along rivers and other large bodies of water. But eagles will also hunt and kill geese, ducks, and small mammals. Outdoor pets are not exempt. Bald (meaning white, not featherless) Eagles also scavengers and will eat carrion. Yes, that’s right, our noble aviary symbol of the United States of America are opportunists and are just as likely to stick their head in the bloody cavity of a deer left by other predators as they are to rake the water and pull up a wriggling and very surprised trout. And that “pweeee” sound you hear in the movies when they are showing a Bald Eagle soaring, is actually the call of the Red-tailed Hawk. The Bald Eagle has more of a high-pitched chortling call. Listen for their “laughter” at Ashfield Lake as there is at least one who visits our shores.
Eagles have made quite a comeback over the decades. The now banned chemical DDT nearly wiped them out. Commonwealth efforts to bring our revered bird back from the brink included banning chemicals that biomagnified (had an accumulating effect) in their systems, affecting egg viability; finding successful foster parents in the wild from permanently injured adults residing at rehabilitation centers; and relocating lake and riverside 4th of July celebrations so as to not scare fledging eaglets out of the nest too early.
Raptors, Latin for “plunderer”, meaning to take by force, are carnivorous birds who share the following common characteristics: a hooked beak for tearing and cutting; taloned (thick clawed) feet for striking, capturing, and crushing prey; keen eyesight; and though males and females appear similar in coloration, females are larger than males. Most raptors regurgitate a pellet before their next hunt. A pellet is the remains of what the bird could not digest, mainly fur, feathers, and bones.
Diurnal raptors in the order Falconiformes include Accipiters such as Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Northern Goshawk; Buteos such as Broad-winged hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk; Northern Harriers in subfamily Circinae; Turkey Vultures in the Cathartidae family; and Peregrine Falcons in the Falconidae family. Our smallest New England diurnal raptor is the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) in the Falcon family, which is about the same size as a Blue Jay, whereas our largest is the Bald Eagle (Hainaeetus leucocephalus), in the Buteo family, boasting a 6-6 ½‘ wingspan.
Nocturnal raptors are in the order Strigiformes. Characteristics include: flattened faces forming facial discs; large forward-facing eyes; soundless flight, and usually feathered feet with a reversible outer toe. Some species have “ear” tufts. The Commonwealth supports 6 resident owls: Great Horned, Barred, Barn, Long-eared, Screech, and Saw-whet. The Saw-whet (Aegolius acadicus) is our smallest owl, measuring just 1 ½’ tall with a 1 3/4’ wingspan, and the Great Horned (Bubo virginianus) is our largest with 4-5’ wingspan, standing about 2’ tall.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appears in the March 2019 edition of The Ashfield News.
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