Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Glorious Owls, a Breed Apart ; Scientists Are Beginning to Decipher the Birds' Behavior and Biology

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Glorious Owls, a Breed Apart ; Scientists Are Beginning to Decipher the Birds' Behavior and Biology

Article excerpt

Scientists are beginning to puzzle out the birds' behavior and biology.

The day after a frigid, star-salted night spent tromping through the woods with David Johnson of the Global Owl Project, and listening to the stridently mournful cries of wild barred owls that remained hidden from view, I stopped by the National Zoo around sunset to take visual measure of the birds I had heard.

The two barred, or Strix varia, owls were just rousing themselves in the outdoor enclosure, and they looked bigger and more shaggily majestic than I expected, with capes of densely layered cream-and- coffee plumage, Elizabethan feather ruffs encircling their necks. Like any good royalty, they ignored me.

That is, until I pulled out my phone with the birdcall app and started playing the barred owl song. The female's languid eyes shot wide open. The male's head spun around in its socket by 180 of the 270 degrees an owl's head can swivel.

With the distinctive forward-facing gaze that can make owls seem as much human as bird, the barred pair stared at me. I played the call again, the male grew bored, and I was about to put the phone away when suddenly the female -- the larger of the two owls, as female birds of prey often are -- pitched her body forward on her perch, lifted up her heavy, magnificent wings and belted out a full- throated retort to my recorded call.

After a brief pause, she hooted the eight-note sequence once more, at which point an astonished zoogoer nearby burst into applause.

In the Western imagination, the owl surely vies with the penguin for the position of My Favorite Bird. "Everyone loves owls," said David J. Bohaska, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, who discovered one of the earliest owl fossils. "Even mammalogists love owls."

Owls are a staple of children's books and cultural kitsch -- here wooing pussycats in pea-green boats and delivering mail to the Harry Potter crew, there raising a dubiously Wise eyebrow in the service of snack food. Yet for all the apparent familiarity, only lately have scientists begun to understand the birds in any detail, and to puzzle out the subtleties of behavior, biology and sensory prowess that set them apart from all other avian tribes.

Researchers have discovered, for example, that young barn owls can be impressively generous toward one another, regularly donating portions of their food to smaller, hungrier siblings -- a display of altruism that is thought to be rare among nonhuman animals, and one that many a small human sibling might envy.

The scientists also discovered that barn owls express their needs and desires to each other through a complex, rule-based series of calls, trills, barks and hoots, a language the researchers are now seeking to decipher.

"They talk all night long and make a huge noise," said Alexandre Roulin of the University of Lausanne, who reported on barn owl altruism in the journal Animal Behaviour with his colleague Charlene A. Ruppli, and Arnaud Da Silva of the University of Burgundy. "We would never put our nest boxes in front of a farmer's bedroom, or the person wouldn't be able to sleep."

Other researchers are tracking the lives of some of the rarer and more outlandishly proportioned owls, like the endangered Blakiston's fish owl of Eurasia. Nearly a yard high, weighing up to 10 pounds, or 4.5 kilograms, and with a wingspan of six feet, or 1.8 meters, Blakiston's is the world's largest owl, a bird so hulking it is often mistaken for other things, said Jonathan Slaght of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Russia program. It could easily look like a bear in a tree or a man on a bridge.

Or maybe Ernest Hemingway. This powerful predator can pull from the river an adult salmon two, three or more times its own weight, sometimes grabbing onto a tree root with one talon to help make the haul. Ferocity is essential for a bird whose frigid, spotty range extends across northeastern China, the Russian Far East and toward the Arctic Circle, one that breeds and nests in the dead of winter, perched atop a giant cottonwood or elm tree, out in the open, in temperatures 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 34 degrees Celsius). …

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