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It’s a great time of year to see Great Gray Owls

Bill Schiess,
In late December several Great gray owls showed up around the Rexburg area, but soon disappeared back into the mountains. Then in the first week of February with the snow deepening, these magnificent birds started showing up in the mature groves of cottonwood near both forks of the Snake River as well as the Teton River.
Instead of staying consistently in one area to get their food, it appears that the Great grays were forced to move from meadow to meadow along the river bottoms to harvest enough rodents to sustain their life style. Over the last three weeks, I have seen these owls in seven different areas, but never more than four in one day.
“About every third day, I will see the owls back hunting the same area,” said one owl-enthusiast. “I don’t know where they go, but I am sure happy to see them when they show up again.”

Bill Schiess,
Great grays need to harvest about seven rodents per day and are equipped to do so in snow up to two feet deep, much of the valley is covered with about that much snow complicating their task. This week I watched as one attempted six times to dive for rodents and was only successful on two occasions. Usually with about 12 inches of snow, they are successful about 90 percent of the time.
Their hearing is the key to capture the rodents hidden beneath the snow. Great grays have asymmetrical hearing, meaning their ears are on different areas of the head. Their left ear is higher than their right ear causing them to hear a sound at different times, a 30-millionth of a second difference, allowing them to pinpoint the exact location of the victim. Their feather eye discs, called tuffs, funnel the sounds to the ears and by cocking their heads, they fine tune a targets position.

Bill Schiess,
Their “wait-and-attack” game is usually successful. They perch in a tree or fence post until they locate the sound of rodent movement and with one beat of their silent wings go into a glide. Their head faces toward the ground until they are directly over the target. As they start their dive, their powerful feet are placed on each side of their head to grab the unseen and unsuspecting rodent.
In the deep snow, their dive will cover them completely but they will quickly worm their way out and if the rodent is small enough, they will quickly swallow it whole. I have often wondered what, if, a live mouse was in your belly what would feel it like; but I am not going to find out. If the dinner is too large to “down the hatch” in one bite, the legs are usually eaten first so the rest can slide down easier.

Bill Schiess,
As the snow melts a little along the roads, these birds will hunt the barrow pits, that will be very dangerous for them. This week I got a picture of one flying straight toward me as I was watching from my truck. I thought for a minute like it was going to fly in my window as I was taking pictures. Maybe my camera sounded like a rodent.
If you are lucky enough to watch one of the dapper-grays with a white bowtie on its neck, enjoy them from a distance and do not chase them. They will often come close to you and you can watch them as they demonstrate their magic on how to catch a mouse. Hopefully the snow will start melting so they can have it a little easier to find their meals.

Bill Schiess,

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