On the nightshift

"On the prowl for owls? Just listen for the squawking of crows. Huh?“The best way to find an owl is to be out in the early morning, and if you hear the crows chattering a lot, you know that they have found an owl,” said naturalist Steve Ellis. “Sixty or 70 percent of the owls I’ve found have been found by crows first.”The crows gang up on owls and try to chase them out of the neighborhood, because owls will feed on unsuspecting crows, explained Ellis, a past president of the Whidbey Island chapter of the Audubon Society. Along with his wife, Martha, he’ll teach a Tuesday evening class on the night-hunting birds as part of the Coupeville Community Education series Jan. 29 through March 23. Also offered will be courses on subjects ranging from aerobics and woodworking to computers and cooking. (See sidebar for a schedule.) Classes, which range in price from $10 to $60, are held at Coupeville Elementary and Coupeville Middle and High schools.As for the introduction to owls, the Ellises will incorporate slides, video and preserved owl wings from a local collection in order to get students up to speed. Not to mention a slew of interesting owl facts. For example, although crows cawing is a good indicator there are owls around, said Ellis, the obnoxious black birds aren’t exactly an owl’s first choice at meal time.“The owl has been called the flying mouse trap,” Ellis offered. “If populations are really high, they just eat the good parts and keep hunting until they are full.”Without owls and their voracious appetites to keep rodent populations in check, said Ellis, there would be considerably more crop damage, and a lot of ground-dwelling birds such as quail would decline in number, because the mice and voles would take their eggs.And while owl hunting habits are good news for the young of some ground-dwelling bird species, they’re mating schedule is a bummer for the babies of small four-legged critters. All of the nocturnal hooting heard about this time of year is just the beginning of the cycle.“They are getting ready to nest. Owls nest really early,” Ellis said. “They time it so that when they’re young have hatched is when a lot of the prey species like voles are having their young and coming out of the nest. The young ones are unwary, so they’re easily caught by the owlettes.”Before they get into such harrowing detail, though, the Ellises will fill students in on the basics.“We’re going to cover the owls found on Whidbey and what habitats they use and why they are here,” Ellis explained. “We’ll play tapes so that [students] know what the owls sound like. We’re going to get the collection of wings from [biologist] Matt Klope at the Navy base. We’ll also have some owl pellets.”Pellets are the little wads of bone and fur coughed up by the owls — the only parts of its meal it can’t digest. They are an important tool in studying owls, because they reveal a great deal about a particular bird’s feeding habits.“The main owl we have on the island is the great horned owl,” according to Ellis, the large, pale gray and brown birds with distinctive tufts of black feathers on their heads. “During the day they’re in forests and wood lots, and they hunt open areas at night.”Whidbey’s second most populous owl type is the barred owl, a smaller bird than the horned owl and one that is a nonnative species that has moved in from its native habitat on the East Coast of the United States.In addition to the classroom instruction, said Ellis, students will also spend a little time outdoors. “If the conditions are perfect, we’ll go outside and see if we can hear owls, because I’ve heard them before at the school,” Ellis claimed.”I just think owls are neat,” he continued. “They are perfectly adapted to what their life is. They are all around us. We were doing a survey, and just about every stop we made around the island we could hear them.“Certainly everyone on the island is within a mile or two of a great horned owl.” "

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