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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Owls of Pend Oreille County

by John Stuart

Pend Oreille County is blessed with a number of owl species and each of these species has slightly different ways of being "owl". A few are daytime (diurnal) owls, most are nighttime (nocturnal) owls. Some are forest birds, some are open country birds and some sequester themselves by elevation or proximity to water. One can use some generalizations about how an owl lives but one should not be surprised that the owl finds it convenient to confound many of our predictions about its owlness.

Here is a list of 11 species that could be found in our area. In my experience only 5 of them are "common" or fairly easy to find. The other 6 are "maybes". Our regular owl neighbors are: Great-horned, Barred, Pygmy, Saw-whet and Boreal. The irregular or hard-to-find species are: Long-eared, Great Gray, Western Screech, Flammulated, Northern Hawk-Owl, and Snowy. The Snowy, being a tundra bird, is only a very rare winter visitor to the Cusick flats.

One fairly safe prediction that can be made about owls is their time of nesting. Most owls are mostly quiet most of the year, but all of our local owls are their noisiest during the mating season, sometime between February and May. The larger species like the Great Horned and the Barred, perched atop the food chain and with little to fear, do some speechifying throughout the year. The small owls, likely to be food themselves for large owls and fast hawks, are very quiet outside the mating and nesting season.

There is no better time to try finding your way around in the dark than on a moonlit night in March and no better time to hear a little night music in Pend Oreille County. To get a feeling for how many owls are actually calling, I will drive a road, stopping every half mile or so and listening for about 10 minutes at each stop. The owls heard will usually be males who have probably found a good nest site and have already checked out the territory. Depending on the species, some owls will be very attached to their territories while others will wander around using a different area each year. If the male is still single, he will be an enthusiastic caller, sometimes going on for hours without resting. I suspect some of the small owls may find a mate just before the mating season and call very little. We have personal experience with a Saw-whet male who called enthusiastically for two weeks while single. I was checking on him about every other day. Sure enough, as soon as a female took a shine to him, he shut down his calling completely within a couple days. This will not, however, be a consistent trait with all species. Your own experience, going with a mentor, or listening to bird tapes will help with identifying which owl it is you are hearing.

Except for the Snowy Owl, what all these owls have in common is their need for forestland in one form or the other. These owls, being carnivores, are completely dependent on other creatures of the forest for their food. The largest, the Great-Horned, is known to have taken skunks, snowshoe hare, ruffed grouse, as well as an occasional domestic pet. We once found a roadkill Great Horned that had been eating worms off a road, in a rainstorm, when it was struck by a car. the Flammulated, in contrast, is only the size of a swallow and lives on nocturnal forest moths and other insects. Only rarely is it known to have eaten rodents. The other owls, regardless of size, live mostly on rodents but will, if given the opportunity, dine on anything they can catch and carry off.

The other bit of their habitat that varies roughly with the size of the owl is the size of their nesting territories. A pair of Great-Horned owls will use from 600-1000 acres. Flammulated owl research shows these little wood sprites raising a family on about 35 acres. Apparently there are a lot of moths in 35 acres of forest.

To be suitable for owls (as well as many other there are certain qualities of forestland that support the whole food pyramid or food chain. To owl, a forest with lots of snags, tree trunks on the ground, mistletoe brooms on branches and intermittent brush and grass is a 5-star restaurant. Bring on the groceries! It is within the murky shadows of this messiness where life abounds. Small things, in the form of mushrooms, insects, rodents and many others dwell here and feed the more visible large fuzzies who get their 8 X 10 glossies on outdoor calendars.

This is where the beauty of the world according to owl can differ sharply with our human landscaping sensibilities. Though most people deem it necessary to keep their yards and houses picked up and maintained, this urge, applied to the larger forest, is hurting wildlife populations. That old rotten log is a gold mine of food for somebody. That snag is providing nesting and roosting cavities as well as food for insect larva which end up feeding many other larger critters. The concept of "waste" doesn't apply to a forest. Dead wood is just forest in the making, whether sustaining today’s wildlife or making a magical transformation into trees or bears or owls of the distant future.

Owl Calls

WHO says what?

short series of HOOs:

BARRED OWL: sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

GREAT HORNED OWL: sounds like “Who’s awake? Me too!”

SCREECH OWL: soft high hoots, increasing in tempo, near water

Continuous piping “beeps”:

PYGMY OWL: relatively slow, one beep every three seconds, usually daytime

SAW-WHET OWL: relatively fast, approximately 2 beeps per second, nighttime

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