Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/July 1892/Ways of the Owl
|WAYS OF THE OWL.|
By FRANK BOLLES.
SINCE June, 1888, I have had in my possession for longer or shorter periods eleven live owls, including snowy, great-horned, long-eared, barred, and screech owls. I have also had opportunities of watching Acadian and screech owls in a wild state. In June, 1888, I secured two young barred owls from a hollow beech tree in a White Mountain forest. I have them still after three and a half years of happy companionship. During the first summer they were pets not easily petted. They used beak and claws fiercely and resented familiarity. I kept them in a large slatted cage in my barn, where they had plenty of air and light. They bathed freely and frequently. They ate largely of animal food. They were awake by day, restless at twilight, but profoundly quiet by night. They could see perfectly in bright sunlight, and better at night than most creatures. In the autumn I took them to Cambridge, where they were given a large cage in my cellar. During the winter I handled them more and more freely, beginning by using stout leather gloves, but soon stroking and rubbing their heads with my bare hands. They became more and more gentle, and I found that even when they nipped me with their beaks they did not attempt to cause serious pain. One of them, whose name is Puffy, injured his wing early in his captivity, and has never been able to fly. The other I keep clipped in one wing. In the spring of 1889 I began taking Puffy with me on walks. I found at once that he was wonderfully useful in attracting other birds. During the summer of 1889, the following winter, and the summers of 1890 and 1891 he was my companion on walks, drives, and trips in my Rushton boat. To a smaller extent I have taken his mate Fluffy with me, but he is of a less patient disposition than Puffy, and during a long walk is sure to hop from the stick upon which I carry him many more times than Puffy would in an equal period. In May, 1891, 1 secured a third baby barred owl from the same beech tree. From the first hour that he was imprisoned he has shown an irritable temper. His whining as a young bird was incessant by day and not always suspended by night. Now, at the age of nine months, he whines whenever any one approaches him, and frequently makes violent assaults upon me when I enter the part of my cellar in which the owls are penned. Puffy and Fluffy during their first summer were quite timid, and Fluffy is an arrant coward now; but Prince Edward, as the new captive has been named, has never shown fear of anything living or dead, large or small.
Of two fully grown screech-owls which I owned, one in the spring of 1890, the other in the spring of 1891, little is to be said.
They were unhappy, and, although they ate well, both died from the effects of pounding their heads against wire netting in efforts to escape. These owls, when approached, stiffen their ears, make their feathers lie closely against their bodies, keep every joint and muscle rigid, and so nearly close their eyes that only an expressionless slit remains through which they watch the intruder. To the gentle caress of a hand they pay no heed. I have often taken one of them in my hand, laid him upon his back, and so carried him from room to room, and not been able to detect the movement of a feather. Let, however, the intruder retire, or let him take a dead mouse from his pocket and draw it by a string across the floor, and Scops is himself again in a twinkling. The ears are lowered, the bright eyes open wide with a wicked glare, and the soft wings take the crafty and cruel little bird swiftly down upon the mouse. This habit of shamming unconsciousness appeared to be characteristic of the long-eared owl which was mine for a few brief hours in October, 1891. I handled him freely, but the closed eyes and rigid muscles did not move. I went away and watched him from a distance, and he was alert and making full use of his beautiful eyes.
Early in the summer of 1890 a friend sent me three young screech-owls. They were as odd little gray hobgoblins as could be imagined. Their temper, their voices, their appetites all needed superlatives to describe them. They were sent to the White Mountains for the summer, and lived in a slatted box under the barred owls' big cage. They loved mice, birds, and fish, but did not take quite as kindly to raw liver as the barred owls did. For a week or more two of them were taken away from the third, and when they came back they no longer knew him as a brother. His life was made a burden to him, and one morning in August I found his body lying on the floor of their cage. They had removed nearly all his feathers and would probably have devoured him if I had not deprived them of the fruits of their unnatural crime. A few days passed and the two murderers quarreled over a mouse. In the frequent struggles that followed, one was killed outright and the other survived but twelve hours. My efforts to tame these young screech-owls were only partially successful. The murdered one had taken one or two excursions with me, and while I walked clung to a stick carried in my hand, or nestled between my arm and my body. If placed in a tree he served quite well as a decoy, although perhaps some species of birds did not take him as seriously as they did the barred owls when those intruded upon their breeding-grounds.
In June, 1891, I was presented with Snowdon, a full-grown snowy owl, which had been captured during the preceding winter. He was a dangerous-looking bird, with a temper and a trick of jumping for one's fingers. I clipped one wing and began by handling him roughly if he showed a disposition to fight. At the end of a week he learned to step upon a stick and cling to it while I carried him back and forth in the cellar. Taking him to the White Mountains, I gave up to his use a box stall in the northeast corner of my barn, and kept damp Iceland moss for him to stand upon, plenty of water for him to bathe in or drink, and a moderate supply of food for his sustenance. Although we had some warm weather, he was in perfect health throughout the season, and is now in excellent condition. At first I kept the barred owls away from him, fearing that they might murder each other, but later experiments showed that Snowdon had no ill feeling toward the barred owls, and ignored them even when they stole his portion of the food. It is now six months since I turned them in together, and during the whole of that time the four birds have been on terms of quiet indifference.
About the middle of September, 1891, a Boston dealer sent me a mature great-horned owl. He reached my country place just in time to be sent back to Cambridge with the snowy and barred owls. Clipping one of his great wings, I placed him with the others in the 250 square feet of cellar space fenced off for them. Puffy prepared for war, Fluffy fled, Prince Edward regarded the stranger with indifference, and Snowdon and the great-horned formed an alliance at once. Three months have passed, and, so far as I know, no conflict has occurred. The older barred owls fear and dislike the great-horned. Prince Edward treats him with brassy familiarity, and Snowdon stays with him in the corner of the cellar farthest from the favorite perch of the barred owls.
Having introduced my characters, I will now compare them in several particulars. They arrange themselves, when I think of them as owls merely, into two groups the brown owls and the gray owls. The great-horned, long-eared, screech, and Acadian owls seem to me much alike in disposition and their way of meeting man. They seem like kindred.
The barred and snowy owls, while quite different from the brown owls, are somewhat alike in temper. They show fight when approached, and are very alert. The barred owls make several different sounds expressive of various emotions. They snap their beaks furiously when warning an enemy; they whine when hungry; they make a soft, rather musical "ōō" when meeting after an absence; they chatter with rage when pulling in opposite directions on the same bird or mouse; and they hoot when expressing the sentiments which make the domestic cock crow. While young they make a queer chuckling chatter when cuddled, and as the sound grows faint it suggests the music of a brood of chickens nestling under their mother's feathers. The hooting varies. In the August twilight I often hear the loud trumpeting "hōō" uttered at intervals of half a minute or more by wild owls in the woods. The common hoot, which suggests to some ears feline music, is generally "hoo-hoo hoo-hǒǒ, hoo-hoo hoo-hōō," but I heard a barred owl this winter in a remote White Mountain valley say "hoo-ǒǒ, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo-ōō." He was a conversational and inquisitive bird. By hiding in some evergreens and hooting to him I drew him little by little to the treetop just above me.
Wholly different is the conversation of the snowy owl. His warning is sometimes beak-snapping, but oftener an open-mouthed, hissing "āh" which has a most menacing quality. He occasionally utters a shrill, whistling scream expressive of pain or the fear of pain, yet he makes it also when snatching a morsel of food held toward him. Thus far I have heard my great-horned owl make but four sounds: terrific beak-snapping; āh-ing quite equal to Snowdon's; a hooting which suggests wind sighing in a hollow tree, and taking the form of "whōō, hoo-hoo-hoo, whōōō, whōōō"; and a series of soft, musical notes, rolled from his throat when Snowdon comes too near his clutched breakfast.
My barred owls eat raw butcher's meat, mice and squirrels, bats, any kind of bird, hawk and crow included, fresh fish, lake mussels, snakes, turtle-meat, some species of frog, earthworms, some kinds of insects, and hen's or bird's eggs. They will not touch toads or the frogs which secrete an offensive scent. They rarely eat tainted meat or stale fish. Once they played for hours with a dead weasel, much as a cat plays with a mouse, but they did not eat any part of it. They catch living fish from a tank, and kill mice, squirrels, birds, frogs, and snakes; but they were at first greatly alarmed by a turtle, and a young hare running around their cage frightened them almost into fits. Puffy will face and put to flight a cat or a dog, but a pig is a terror to him. When Puffy was only six months old he caught and killed a two-pound pullet, yet in March and April, 1891, he roosted night after night on the same perch, with an old Cochin hen which had begun her stay in his cage by giving him an unmerciful trouncing.
So far as I have been able to ascertain, Snowdon will not kill anything, no matter how hungry he may be. He eats dead birds, mice, squirrels, fish, snakes, mussels, turtles, if opened, and butcher's scraps; but he will make no effort to catch or kill a squirrel, mouse, or snake, although shut up with them while hungry for a day or more. In one instance of this kind he ate a squirrel which he had allowed to live for twelve hours, as soon as it was killed and given to him. I have seen him drink once, and only once. If he bathes, it is a rare occurrence and done secretly. Early one morning in August, 1891, I heard a splashing in the owl's watertank. It was about 3.30 a. m. Creeping to the cage, I peered in. and saw Snowdon shaking himself, as though he had just finished a bath.
His method of eating is suggestive of a carrion-eater. The barred owls are deliberate in their way of treating their food. They search for and crush joints and finny projections. In a frog they feel of every limb from end to end, and crunch away at the joints until they are mellow. They generally pull out the stiff wing and tail feathers, even in quite moderate-sized birds. Small snakes they swallow squirming. Snowdon, on the other hand, ignores live snakes, and his first act with dead food is to swallow it whole if he can possibly distend his throat far enough to let it pass. I have seen the head of a large rooster vanish down his throat bill foremost without his making any effort to crush it. Often a piece of food will stick in his throat and refuse to go down, in spite of vigorous jerks, jumps, and convulsive swallowing. It is then ejected and sometimes dropped altogether. With a large piece of meat or fish his method is different. Standing upon it, he snaps at it viciously and tears off small bits, in eating which he makes a smacking noise. Engaged in this way he is a disgusting spectacle. His head is poked forward, and the feathers upon it seem flattened. The hairy feathers around his beak are drawn back, and his red mouth is open much of the time. If disturbed while eating, he makes his shrill and extremely piercing cry. He is perfectly willing to be fed by hand, snapping at and bolting morsels of liver as fast as they are passed to him. He sometimes eats enormous quantities of food in a short time. He ate the whole of a full-grown bittern in twenty-four hours, and on another occasion a cooper's hawk placed before him at night had only one leg and a few feathers remaining in the morning. Like other owls, he ejects hair and bone pellets from his mouth.
The great-horned owl is not so ready to be fed. He prefers to eat while alone. Mice, however, are too attractive to be refused, and whenever held before him are slowly and quietly taken and swallowed. Other food he usually pretends not to see until I have left him. He seems ready to eat anything that the other owls like. I know that he has bathed at least once this winter, and, judging "by his plumage, lie uses water freely. When given a cod's head or a large bird, he stands upon it and tears off morsels much as Snowdon does. His motions in doing this are sudden and his whole expression fierce and tiger-like. With horns slightly flattened and eyes glaring, he first plucks a piece of flesh from the carcass and then turns his head sharply from side to side to see whether any other owl dares to intrude upon his repast. My
barred, snowy, and great-horned owls all feed freely in the daytime. My screech-owls, on the contrary, usually waited until dark before devouring their food. One of them apparently ignored a live English sparrow for several hours while daylight lasted and the sparrow was able to see him, but when night came the sparrow was speedily caught, plucked, and eaten.
The feeling with which other birds regard an owl seems to be a mixture of curiosity, hatred, and fear. Curiosity impels them to approach, hatred causes them to make violent and abusive cries, while fear inclines them to wariness and prevents them from open attack upon their sphinx-like enemy. This feeling of the birds is general, almost universal, and is shared in a modified form by the smaller owls when brought in contact with large ones. To the chickadee or the warbler it makes no difference whether an owl is large or small; he is an owl, and that prompts inspection and vituperation. In several instances I have found Acadian owls in the woods in consequence of the racket made by birds scolding them. This winter, on the day after Christmas, I was walking through a spruce thicket in Albany, N. H., when the noise of nuthatches, Hudson Bay and black-capped titmice and king-lets enticed me into the darkest part of the growth. The birds were greatly excited, and as I softly drew near them I saw that they were in a circle, all facing toward some focus invisible to me. I crept farther, and saw the tail of a small owl projecting from behind the trunk of a tree. Presently his tiny monkey face was screwed around over his back, and his timid yellow eyes fixed themselves upon me. His tormentors soon flew away, and after studying me attentively for some time the little Acadian floated off out of sight also.
The young screech-owl, whose death at his brother's hands I have already mentioned, irritated the birds of the forest and meadow in the same way. I placed him, one morning, upon a, birch tree which was in use by a family of yellow-billed woodpeckers as a sap-drinking place. The sap-suckers made a great clamor on seeing him, and their cries called together all the birds which were within earshot. At least thirty individuals came, including kingbirds, cuckoos, catbirds, veeries, chickadees, four or
Great-horned and Snowdon.
five kinds of warblers, red-eyed vireos, song-sparrows, and two humming-birds. Having scolded for nearly ten minutes, they departed, leaving a sap-sucker and a humming-bird, which soon forgot the owl and resumed their usual employment of drinking the birch tree's sap.
Several times during the summer of 1891 I took my snowy owl out to walk. He weighs three and a half pounds, so the task of carrying him by hand upon an outstretched stick was rather a laborious one. The birds noticed him at once, and scolded as though he were of a species with which they were unpleasantly familiar, instead of one with which they were presumably wholly unacquainted. Thrushes of various kinds, warblers, vireos, swallows, and sparrows treated him precisely as though he had been a barred owl. Once a grouse, with a family of chicks, confronted him boldly for a moment, while her brood scattered to cover. His conduct while at liberty was somewhat peculiar. He shunned the woods, and if taken into them, quickly made his way out. His left wing being clipped, his only method of advance was by clumsy leaps, or by a queer wobbling run, aided by outstretched wings. Whenever I placed him upon the ground, he would hurry away to a distance, and stop to pant with his wings dragging wearily at his sides. One warm morning I left him on an open pasture hill-side, and walked away to a belt of woods nearly an eighth of a mile from him. Concealing myself in the bushes, I watched him closely through my glass for an hour and a half. The time was nearly a blank. The owl, satisfied that I had gone, walked toward me about a rod and sought the shady side of a small patch of juniper. There he remained almost motionless for the entire period. Sometimes he turned his head and watched crows at a distance. Once or twice he glanced at the sky, and in one instance he followed with his eyes the flight of a small bird. Looking toward the sun did not. seem to affect his vision. That he could see things at a distance was shown in several ways. When I came slowly from my hiding-place he saw me at once, and started jumping down the hill away from me. On another occasion I took him out in a pouring rain, thinking that he would go to the woods for shelter. He was content with standing under a small apple tree which gave him practically no protection, a fact which he discovered and sought to remedy by running to another tree of the same kind. Inactive, unable or unwilling to kill mice or squirrels, even when most hungry, silent, vacant in expression, cowardly, apparently stupid, the snowy owl, judged by my one captive, is a dull and uninteresting member of an unusually acute family. I doubt Snowdon's being a fair type of his species.
The barred owls are the particular abomination of other New England birds. They are courageous, keen of vision by day and in the twilight, strong, alert, quick, yet crafty. Their voracity makes them the terror of every nesting mother, the scourge alike of the forest, the field, and the meadow. Of their merits as decoys there can be no doubt. If taken while young and clipped, they are readily tamed and taught to obey simple orders. Mine have been invaluable to me in studying the birds of New Hampshire. When going for a walk, I take one or both of the older ones. Entering their cage, I extend a short stick toward and on a level with their feet, and say, somewhat sternly, "Get on."
They generally bite the stick once and then step upon it, and cling to it patiently while I carry them through any kind of country. When I wish to have them attract other birds I hold them toward a convenient branch and say, "Get off," which they are very willing to do. Then by whistles or cries I attract some bird's attention, and if it proves to be a titmouse, a woodpecker, a thrush, or some other excitable bird, the alarm is given, and from all quarters the neighbors come pouring in to join the tumult. Even while holding Puffy on a stick and walking with him, I have had birds attack him. Once a pair of solitary vireos followed me for some distance, one of them flying between my head and the owl three times, apparently not noticing me any more than though I had been a tree. A similar attack from a sharp-shinned hawk was more surprising than pleasant. Some species are less demonstrative than others, and seem to think silence and retreat wiser than vituperation. Cedar-birds, great crested fly-catchers, and scarlet tanagers are three species which seldom greet Puffy noisily. Game birds, as a rule, are too much afraid of me to remain near the owl, and the same is true of water-fowl. Loons have, however, shown curiosity on discovering Puffy, and sandpipers clearly dislike him. I tested this in an amusing way one day, by taking Puffy out in my boat to a point just to windward of a solitary sandpiper, and then setting him adrift on a small board. At first the sandpiper did not see him, but as the wind carried the placid owl nearer and nearer the beach, the tattler suddenly discerned him, and became stiff with astonishment. He faced the owl, his head poked forward and his body rigid, then with a wild cry he flew, rising from the water and passing over the trees, away from the lake.
Whip-poor-wills are not easy birds to watch at night, but they usually fly toward the owl, uttering excited clucks, and fly several times over it before going away to a distance. A mother nighthawk, with young, showed great courage and sagacity in dealing with Puffy. I placed the owl near her nest. She promptly flew down on the side of the owl away from her young, and fluttered in the grass as though wounded. Puffy hopped toward her. She flew a few feet, he followed, she flew a rod, he followed a third time. She flew three or four rods, and, as he hopped on, she rose and circled around him until, if he had seen her nest in the first place, he never could have remembered in which direction it lay.
The hooting of a barred owl in the daytime, or my imitation of the sound, almost invariably brings birds to the spot. Crows will come a long way in response to the hated call. So will blue jays, and several of the hawks and woodpeckers, hermit and Swainson's thrushes, chickadees, and a few other small birds, including the siskins in winter. Crows, in a particular region, soon learn that a barred owl implies a man in the same thicket, but for the first two or three times, hooting will surely call them within short range.
Although game birds usually avoid the owl on account of my presence, a grouse with a large brood of young on one occasion showed much courage in watching Puffy. Her chicks scattered, but she remained in sight, whining and trailing her wings and doing her best to entice the owl away from the spot. Once she came within ten paces of him, her tail spread like a fan and her wings arched like an angry hen's. Puffy paid little attention to her, but seemed to be looking for the chicks which he had heard stirring in the leaves. Whenever he hopped she rushed into view, whining. She remained near by during the whole of twenty minutes that I spent in her domain.
In July, 1891, Puffy had a face-to-face meeting with a wild barred owl. Puffy was perched upon a stump facing a hemlock forest. Suddenly he became rigid and assumed a very unusual attitude for him, his head being thrust forward and his body flattened so that his breast rested upon the stump. Following the direction of his steady gaze, I saw a fine specimen of his race in the dark forest. He was as rigid as Puffy. How long they would have glared at each other I cannot tell, for it began to rain, and the stranger flew away.
The hearing of all species of owls known to me is marvelously keen; so keen, in fact, that I know of no way of testing it, since it is so much more acute than that of man. If owls have the sense of smell, I am unable to find satisfactory evidence of it. I have tried various experiments with them, hoping to prove that they could smell, but the results are all negative. They dislike putrid meat, but they bite it to ascertain its condition. They will not eat toads or frogs which yield an unpleasant odor, but they did not reject these species until they had tested them by tasting. They may be ever so hungry, yet they do not suspect the presence of food if it is carefully covered so that they can not see it. This test I have applied with the utmost care to the great-horned, snowy, and barred owls. The latter are shrewd enough to learn my ways of hiding their food, and when they suspect its presence they will search in the places where I have previously hidden it, pouncing upon pieces of wrapping-paper, and poking under feathers and excelsior with amusing cunning. I tested them with the fumes of camphor, ammonia, and other disagreeable and unusual smells, but they failed to show that they perceived them unless the fumes were strong enough to affect their breathing or to irritate their eyes. Finally, I put a cat in a basket and placed the basket between the two owls. They were utterly indifferent to it until the cat made the basket rock, when both of them fled precipitately, and could not be induced to go near the basket again. Although Puffy will put a cat to flight when on his mettle, Fluffy is frightened almost out of his wits by them.
A Japanese toy-bird, made of a piece of wood and a few scarlet feathers, was eagerly seized by Puffy, indicating not only a lack of power of smell, but the presence of an appreciation of color. I have fancied that an appreciation of color is also shown by barred owls in their frequent selection of beech trees as nesting-places, by great-horned owls in their choice of brown-trunked trees, and by Snowdon in an apparent preference for gray backgrounds.
To this real or imaginary ability of the owls to select protective backgrounds is to be joined an undoubted power of assuming protective shapes. My great-horned owl can vary at will from a mass of bristling feathers a yard wide, swaying from side to side as he rocks from one foot to the other, to a slim, sleek, brown post only a few inches wide, with two jagged points rising from its upper margin. When blown out and defiant, his bill is snapping like a pair of castanets, and his yellow eyes are opening and shutting and dilating and contracting their pupils in a way worthy of a fire-breathing Chinese dragon. In repose he is neither inflated nor sleek, but a well-rounded, comfortable mass of feathers. The barred owls go through the same processes of expanding and arching out their wings when awaiting attack, and of drawing all their feathers closely to their sides when endeavoring to avoid observation. In one instance Puffy escaped from me in the woods, perched upon a small beech stump, drew his feathers into such a position that he seemed a mere continuation of the stump, closed his feathered eyelids until only a narrow slit remained for him to peep through, and stayed perfectly stiff for an hour while I hunted for him high and low. I passed by him several times without bringing my eyes to the point of recognizing him as a living thing. This power is shared by the screech-owl and the long-eared owl. The plumage of the snowy owl is so solid that he seems more scaly or hairy than feathered. He does not, so far as my specimen shows, expand and arch his wings. Instead of standing straight and becoming slim and rigid, he crouches and flattens himself when seeking concealment. I can imagine him in his Labrador wilds crouching thus amid a waste of junipers and reindeer moss, and baffling the eye which sought to detect him there.
The control which owls have and exercise over their feathers is not limited to moments when they wish to appear terrible or inconspicuous. They seem to ruffle them or smooth them, expand them or withdraw them in queer ways at pleasure. The barred owls, when stepping stealthily across a floor after a dead mouse drawn by a thread, tuck up their feathers as neatly as a woman hold her skirts out of the mud. When eating, the feathers nearest the mouth are pulled aside in a most convenient way. When wet, the feathers seem to shake themselves as well as to be shaken by motions of the body, head, and wings. My wife, in making a water-color sketch of Snowdon, complained that, although she could not see him move, he changed his outline a dozen times in an hour.
The owl's eye is his most useful member. The popular belief that the owl is seriously blinded by light is almost wholly unfounded, at least so far as the species of which I am writing are concerned. When a man approaches an owl in broad daylight the owl, in nine cases out of ten, will close his eyes, and so appear sleepy. As I have already explained, this is an effort to escape notice by the assumption of a protective shape. That it is not due to any dread of light or inability to see is shown by the following instances of perfect seeing by owls in bright daylight: Walking through a Cambridge road in March, 1891, I saw an Acadian owl perched on a willow limb about fifty feet from me. His plumage was stiffened and his eyes nearly shut. I approached him and slowly raised my hand toward him. Suddenly his eyes opened wide and glared at me. Then the soft wings spread and he fell forward upon them, and flew toward the sun to a distant perch. The Acadian owl already mentioned as having been seen in December, 1891, in the spruce forest of the Swift River Valley, watched me keenly, and swung his small head around after the manner of owls, trying to see me clearly from more than one point of view. The screech-owl which I first owned, although shamming sleep one morning when I entered the room where I kept it, pounced upon a dead mouse which I let fall upon the floor, and flew off with it before I realized what had happened. One of my three young screech-owls when only two months old tried to catch a sap-sucking woodpecker which had perched near it in the sunlight on a dead tree. My snowy owl, as I have already stated, watches birds flying across the sky at a distance, and once saw me as I slowly emerged from the woods an eighth of a mile from him. Great-horned owls are well known to be active by day, and not inconvenienced by sunlight. The barred owls, however, exhibit the most marvelous powers of sight, and their eyes may well be called telescopic. In dozens of instances Puffy has seen, and by his fixed watching of the sky has called my attention to, hawks flying at so great a height that they were well-nigh beyond man's vision. More than this, he has on two or three occasions seen a hawk approaching in the upper air when my eyes, aided by a fairly strong glass, failed to see the bird until it drew nearer and grew large enough for me to detect it as a mere dot in the field of the lens. My eyes, by the way, are rather stronger and more far-sighted than the average. If the bird thus sighted by Puffy is a hawk or an eagle, he watches it until it is out of sight. If it proves to be a crow or a swift he gives it merely a glance and looks away. The barred owls frequently look at the sun with their eyes half-closed for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. Why they do it I am wholly at a loss to explain. I am in doubt as to how much Puffy can see at night. I once held a cat within a few inches of him in the darkness,and he did not stir. Had he seen it he would certainly have moved and probably snapped his beak. In August, 1891, I let him out after dark on a patch of closely cropped where the dim light enabled me to see him when he moved. I went to the nearest tree and seated myself with my back against its trunk and my legs stretched out before me. Half an hour passed. Puffy scarcely moving except when a bat flew over him, and I keeping perfectly motionless. At last he came toward me, slowly, a yard or two at a time. When he was within a few feet I could see his outline quite plainly. One more hop brought him to my knee, upon which he jumped. Instantly he bounded into the air and made off, unmistakably frightened. He had no idea that he was going to strike a leg and not a log: yet if his eyes had been much keener than a man's he would have seen not only that my clothes were not wood, but that I was leaning against the tree-trunk watching him. In several instances I have called wild barred owls at night and have had them alight in tree-tops close above me. I could see them against the sky, but apparently they could not see me sitting among the brakes and bushes below them. Once with an owl thus above me I imitated the squeaking cry of a wounded bird. I wished I had not, for the owl’s ghostly wings brushed past my face so chisely that I fell back into the bushes, fearing that he would strike at me again.
The memory of my owls is noticeably good. Puffy and Fluffy, the two barred owls which I have had longest, remember their favorite perches from season to season, and resume their chosen roosts after months of absence. In one instance Fluffy, on his return to Cambridge after four months in the mountains, flew the length of the cellar, expecting to strike a perch which had been removed, and, failing to find it, fell to the floor. It is only necessary for me to bring a box-trap into the barn for Puffy to come to the front of his cage, eager to be given a chance to catch the chipmunk which past experience leads him to believe is in it. Similar eagerness is shown in winter, when I bring a paper parcel into the cellar, the owls knowing so well that it contains food that they will tear it open themselves if I do not open it for them. If the bundle is brought in without their knowledge and thrown at random upon the floor, they do not find it, and will leave it for days untouched. Puffy does not like going out in my boat. If he finds that I am taking him to the shore near it, he invariably jumps off his stick and tries to hide in the bushes. Snowdon knows a piece of cloth which I have used to throw over his head when I have wished to handle him, and the sight of it is enough to cause him to make strong efforts to escape from his cage. All three of the barred owls hide their surplus food, and remember where they keep it. Snowdon, on the contrary, sometimes stands over portions which he is not ready to devour, letting his feathers sink down so as to cover them. Puffy not only understands the commands "Get on" and "Get off," but he knows his own name and generally answers when I call him giving a friendly "clap, clap," with his beak. He has frequently revealed his position to me by this answer when I have lost him in the bushes, tall grass, or at twilight. That he especially, and all my other owls to a degree, know me and distinguish me readily from strangers, is I think, undoubtedly a fact. Thus far I have been unable to see that any of the owls have a clear notion of time, except as indicated by the coming or going of daylight. The a digestive workings of owls are extremely economical. In summer the birds have enormous appetites, and become frantic with hunger if not fed every forty or fifty hours. In winter, on the contrary, the mature birds fast for a week or more without complaint. During the winter of 1889-'90 I could not ascertain that Fluffy ate any thing for more than a month—that is, from Christmas-time until first week in February. Throughout this period he seemed well, though inclined to keep quiet and to stay in the darkest corner of the cellar. When fed regularly and amply, all the species of owls with which I have had any experience cast from their mouths egg-shaped "pellets," composed of the bone and hair, fish-scales, and feathers which remain in their stomachs after the digestion of the more nutritious parts of recent meals. This ejection is accomplished easily and quickly, with very little visible muscular action. It usually, or at least often, takes place at the moment when the owl has another hearty meal in view. The owls’ furnaces burn nearly all that goes into them. Considering the amount of fuel put in, the extremely small amount of ashes is wonderful.
In disposition my owls vary widely. The barred as—owls go—remarkably sweet tempered and gentle. I never have seen one offer violence to another, even when two were struggling over a morsel which both were determined to have. Snowdon is sullen, stupid, cowardly, and treacherous. The great-horned has a temper, but he generally keeps it concealed under an air of dignified reserve. My screech-owls, when not shamming sleep or death, were irritable, quarrelsome, and ferocious. Between three-barred owls there are individual differences in disposition, which are readily learned but not easily described. They stand out distinctly in my mind as three characters, just as three children or three horses would be distinguished when I thought of them. I feel as much attachment for Puffy as I possibly could for an intelligent and faithful dog. His crippled wing has probably made him unusually docile and tractable, but, whatever may be the cause of his goodness, he certainly is a model of patience, placidity, and birdly virtue. This, in combination with pluck, which leads him to charge upon and vanquish dogs, cats, and domestic fowls, and a magnanimity which enabled him to roost for weeks alongside of an old hen, will make him worthy of owlish canonization when in good time he is gathered to his fathers.