A VERY SPECIAL OWL
By Mary Nelesen
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Hear the Northern Hawk Owl sing!
HERE (.wav file)
was one of those brilliantly clear winter days when I
came upon an owl perched on a bare branch of an aspen
tree in Glacier National Park. Being a new resident to
NW Montana, I had not seen this owl before and was not
at all familiar with what I was seeing. To my delight,
the owl did not fly away, as my husband and I slowly
made our way on snowshoes to just below the tree where
the owl was perched.
(I would not describe myself as a savvy birder but
rather one who is lucky to remember binoculars and field
guide when walking out the door. This particular day,
however, luck was with me – I had both binoculars and my
trusted field guide in my backpack.)
As the owl sat fearlessly on the branch, my husband and
I took turns observing it and checking the field guide.
It soon became apparent that we were looking at an owl
definitely out of its normal range.
The Northern Hawk owl (Surnia ulula) is a medium-sized
“earless” (no ear tufts), slender owl with a small head
and long tail. It has habits that resemble some of the
smaller hawks (hence its name). It is a dayhunting owl
who perches in open treetops and is tame, with a seeming
utter lack of fear. It relies largely on sight to catch
According to Allan W. Echert’s book, The Owls of North
America, the Northern Hawk owl is an extremely bold and
fearless bird. It can be approached closely without its
taking alarm and fleeing – even to the point where at
times it has been caught by hand. It seems to have an
utter lack of fear where humans are concerned,
especially in the more remote sections of its range.
Aside from humans, the Northern Hawk owl’s natural
enemies are larger owls – especially the Horned owls.
Martens, fishers and weasels also kill a certain number
of fledgling birds, although the parent bird will
usually attack without hesitation any disturbance to the
Nest sites for the Northern Hawk owl are most often in
tree cavities formerly used by Northern Flickers or
Pileated Woodpeckers, tops or hollows of tree stumps,
and even in old nests of raptors or crows. It nests
between April and late June with clutch sizes of 3 – 9
eggs. Incubation is 25 – 30 days. The young fledge at 25
– 35 days of age and remain near the nest for about two
months. They are considered fully independent at three
months of age and are sexually mature at one year of
So, what exactly was the Northern Hawk owl doing in
Glacier National Park during the winter of 2006?
According to The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior,
the Northern Hawk owl is mainly a permanent resident of
the boreal forest which extends across the continent
from Alaska to the Canadian Maritime Provinces. It
usually inhabits open forests with easy access to
clearings. It may be found at the edge of a burn or open
area, which is where my husband and I saw this owl. When
in mountainous areas, Northern Hawk owls may move up as
far as 6000 feet in elevation. It tends to avoid dense
coniferous forests and prefers more open woodlands,
including birch, aspen, and with a preference for pines.
But irruptions can occur. Irruptions are often thought
to be related to a shortage of available prey,
especially lemmings and voles. Other factors include
snow cover and crust characteristics, and temperature.
Following irruptions, some owls are known to remain and
breed in areas far from their previous nesting sites.
This brings me back to my “lucky day” in February 2006.
I have not had the good fortune to observe a Northern
Hawk owl since, but I can assure you I will definitely
know what I’m looking at, if by chance, I again come
upon this very special owl.