Look hoo's here: As springtime blossoms, so too does owl activity

Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011

When Fang, a small, male boreal owl, emerged from his cage to face about 100 Chugiak Elementary fourth-graders on April 11, he seemed just the slightest bit nervous.

Ap Photo/Alaska Star, Melissa Devaughn
Ap Photo/Alaska Star, Melissa Devaughn
Bird Treatment and Learning Center bird specialist Chris Maack shares information on owls with fourth-graders at Chugiak Elementary School on April 11, in Chugiak, Alaska. Maack said the owls have begun their yearly activity and have been heard for the last several weeks.

The first thing he did was let loose with a white squirt of droppings, which prompted the room full of youngsters to screech with delight.

This did not help matters, as the added noise agitated Fang even more. Still, the bird kept its poise, using its ultra-flexible neck to twist its head this way and that, cataloging the surroundings of the school's multipurpose room.

Fang's arrival is timed just right. The owl is one of several that is cared for by volunteers and workers with the Bird Treatment and Learning Center, an Anchorage-based bird rehabilitation and education center that spends a lot of time at area schools, teaching youngsters about the species we have in Alaska.

Not only did the live owl presentation represent the culmination of the fourth-grade science curriculum on bones (the kids have been studying about owls and their habits since February), but it also coincides with the arrival of a period of high activity for these Alaska birds of prey.

Across Chugiak and Eagle River, now is the time to start looking for owls. Of the 10 species known to exist in Alaska, it is possible to see eight in Southcentral, or six locally. The western screech owl is regularly spotted in Seward, and another, the snowy owl, is more common along the North Slope and Barrow. The pygmy and barred are rarely are seen outside of Southeast.

Fourth-grade teacher MaryEllen Gardino said this is the first year that she has incorporated a live owl presentation into the curriculum.

"This (Bird) TLC visit was an added piece this year," she said. "I wasn't aware of their live owl presentation, but when I found out, PTA was generous enough to fund their visit for our four groups" of fourth-grade classes.

Longtime Bird TLC representative and Anchorage Audubon volunteer Chris Maack led the day's discussion with Fang perched on her hand as she talked. She explained that female owls are generally a third larger than their male counterparts; that they like to eat mice and shrews; and that female owls take eight to 10 days to lay all of their eggs.

She listed other facts and figures -- how large they are, which species we have in Alaska and where they can be best heard -- but she didn't answer all of the children's questions. After studying owls for the past two months, the students had plenty to say about these mostly nighttime predators.

"Where did you find him," wanted to know Quintan Perham of Fang. Maack said the bird comes from Galena, where he was found injured. Noone knows how he was injured, and he's never fully recovered, she said.

"How high can that bird fly with its hurt wing?" asked Teanna Burse.

No very high at all, Maack answered. Because of Fang's injured wing, the bird can get up in the air, but not for long.

The questions lasted for a good 20 minutes, with the kids asking everything from what the owls eat to how they get rid of their pellets.

"Do they poop them or barf them?" asked a seriously curious Parker Cormier. (Answer: Barf.)

"How many eggs do they lay?" asked Sophia Lestina (up to eight, Maack answered).

And again from Cormier: "How can they tell each other apart, who's male and female?"

That one stumped Maack. There are some things about owls that they just keep to themselves, she said.

"They just know," she said. "Maybe they see something we don't."

Gardino said she was pleased with this year's owl studies, and her students -- as they have done every year -- were excited to learn all they could about mostly nocturnal creatures.

"I always start (the unit) with Jane Yolen's book "Owl Moon" about special times in your life where a girl is finally old enough to go owling with her father," she said. "We then do the owl investigation to study nonfiction reading and elements of nonfiction. ... I like to integrate subjects, so the carryover of information can be applied to many areas of the curriculum."

Meanwhile, for those not in the classroom, the opportunity is still here to hear owls out and about. Maack said reports of owl sightings -- both visual and auditory -- began coming in regularly about three weeks ago. Anchorage Audubon hosted an owl walk in March, and the Eagle River Nature Center hosted several programs in March to walk and listen for the birds, who are entering the springtime mating season and are more often heard in early morning or evening.

"Arctic Valley Road, Beach Lake Road, and near the Eagle River Nature Center," Maack said. "Those are some of the good places to hear owls around here."

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