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Looking Into an Owl

Sunday, September 25, 2011

 It was, if not an exactly typical morning in our household, not a terribly unusual one. Bill had just left for work when the phone rang. I know this means there's something to report, whether a turtle saved or a rare bird spotted or a fox crossing, or a roadkill that mustn't be missed. It turned out to be the last one.

 A barred owl had gotten hit while flying across the road not far from our house. Bummer, big bummer. Bill knew I'd want to examine it, and I did. I threw my camera over my pajamas and grabbed Liam, who was home from school for parent-teacher conference day, also in his PJ's, and jumped in the car. Time is of the essence with roadkills, because you don't want them to get any squasheder than they already are.

We were pretty late, by which I mean that owl was flat, and so was the pickerel frog he'd been carrying when he was hit. 
He had to have gotten the frog earlier, because it had been a dry night and there was no way a pickerel frog would have been moving out on the road. So I guessed that he'd just swooped too low as he crossed the road (owls do that) and gotten hit.

As soon as I started moving the owl around, looking at it, louseflies swarmed up out of its plumage, looking for a new, preferably live, host.

These bloodsucking flies found on raptors are flat and hard and quick, and they have excellent eyesight, being attracted to motion. The quick, rather than the dead. One landed on my arm and I couldn't blow it off--I had to grab it and throw it, and it circled and came back. Ecccch. It can't live on human protein, but it was hungry. Lousefly don't care. He's hungry.

Now, here's where it gets kind of gross, but fascinating. So if you're easily grossed out, and don't want to find out what the owl had been eating, just quit with this poignant feather photo and email a friend who also reads this blog to ask what the owl had been eating. But I know you're gonna look, because if you're that easily grossed out, you've either just started reading this blog and don't know what to expect, or you've left me a long time ago. Because the nature I know and love isn't all soft and pretty. And the stuff that isn't so pretty is usually more interesting, and it's what makes my canary chirp.


I turned the owl over and found a bunch of what looked like plant material. My first thought was that the poor late owl might have been starving, because louse flies are usually more numerous on a bird that's otherwise compromised. Owls don't eat grass. What is all this green stuff? Huh?

I leaned closer, gagging a little, and yep, it looked like grass. I couldn't make heads or tails of it. But I knew I had to move the carcass off the road. And as I picked the owl up and slapped at the darn louseflies, a bolus fell out of what had been the stomach.

 Weird. More grass. More plant parts. What could be going on with this bird?

Being a Science Chimp, I had to know. So I picked at the stuff and what do you know? A praying mantis foreleg (far right) appeared in the mess.

 And then it all made sense. This owl had been eating praying mantises, and probably a lot of katydids, both of which are at peak abundance right now. And the green I was seeing was their wing covers, and the amber stuff was their membranous wings. Wow. That is a LOT of praying mantises. I'd guess 30 or 40 based on all the wing covers and legs I found.

 With delight, I imagined this beautiful little owl (it was very small, probably a male) swooping low over the goldenrod tops, picking off mantids and katydids with its yellow feet. And I wished hard that he was still doing that. But this owl had made his last big mistake, so I dropped him off into the weeds well off the road to return to the meadow and turned for home, with one thoroughly agog eleven-year-old who decided he would not be having sausage and eggs for breakfast after all.

Instead of getting soft and pretty, my day got weirder, but that's another roadkill post, isn't it?

An Arabesque Orb Weaver, hanging in the guardrail, made me feel a little better about it all. If life gives you roadkill, look at the stomach contents. You might learn something.


Very interesting. Feel bad for the owl, but I'm glad you were the reporter on the scene. I'm a stomach contents kinda person as well. My son brought home a mess of trout and while he was cleaning them I was busy cutting open the stomachs to see what they had eaten. One poor fish had only a cigarette butt in it's gut, nothing else.

When my dad used to duck hunt, four children hung over his shoulder as he cleaned them for our dinner. The object was to see what he had been having for his dinner, a biology and botany lesson in one.
I am with Liam, I think I would have passed on the sausage and eggs for breakfast.

I love this site I will follow him in my head also:

See, I can sit here and eat my breakfast, read your posts and stare long and hard at the pictures, all at the same time. My brain doesn't make a connection to my stomach with a 'this is yucky' message. I daresay I could sit and watch major surgery and nibble. Fascinating post! it.

I was always the one growing up who had to field dress a gutshot deer, or just field dress and quarter them up because it made my dad and brother sick. To this day I'm a blood and guts kind of girl, it just fascinates me.

Don't think I won't appropriate your second-to-last sentence some day! Murr don't care. Murr does what she wants.

Hey Julie, very interesting post and great detective work! I imagine those large mantises can make a nice meal if enough are eaten, which in the case it looks like it was. Those praying mantises can get large, especially the non-native Chinese mantises, which we have a lot of around here. I just recently posted about one that was stalking my hummingbird feeder trying to catch a hummingbird. It’s kind of fascinating the way the circle of life works.

Note to self: "Don't eat breakfast while reading Julie's posts."

Fascinating stuff...just caught me at the wrong moment.

Very interesting post. Found you through a FB post by Dawn. Looking forward to following your blog and learning more.


Your husband knows you very well. The owl feathers are gorgeous, very interesting for you to find out what the "green" was! You always get the details. We can count on that! carol

I love Barred Owls... and I love Praying Mantises... so an odd/sad juxtaposition of two loves into a single post!

And then there are those of us who are easily grossed out but keep reading anyway!

"'s what makes my canary chirp."

I love that.
I'm stealing it and Floridizing it.

Hmmm ... makes my gator bellow ... makes my dolphin squeak ... makes my mullet jump ... yes!

(That refers to the fish of course and not the hairdo)

You lucky guys have pickerel frogs! Another great adventure , thanks for all the splendid details. Leslie Y.

This is pretty cool and I have to say that if I had found this on our farm, I would have done the same thing. Interesting contents of the stomach.

Oh, I'm so happy to know there are so many other gutpokers and prodders out there. I have always wanted to know what the recently deceased have had for dinner. I found a car-hit common nighthawk stuffed with Junebugs once.

Floridacracker, what makes your palm tree sway? Your flamingo march? What juices your orange? Clammers might speak of something that squirts their goeduck. All right. I'm stopping, probably a little late. And can't get the image of a jumping mullet out of my head. The hairdo kind.

Wow, that's really interesting... The only roadkill I've ever seen was of a pigeon, which was overturned and squished, with all it's guts spilling out etc.

Nice find on the mantids. I've not seen a mantid in the stomach of anything I've prepared for the musuem before. I wonder if the owl was feeding by night or by day on those? A few years ago a roadkilled Barred Owl was brought in to our collection. It was a really emaciated HY bird (with a VERY pink flush on the new feathers), and its stomach was full of Dog Day Cicadas. Surely this was a desperation diet; I can't imagine that the cicadas are really worth the effort for a bird this size?

Posted by Andy Jones September 26, 2011 at 5:35 AM

Andy, I'm ashamed to say I did not palp the keel to see what kind of shape it was in--it was kind of a pasty mess. Nor did I save it for the freezer and CMNH. But I'm glad you've seen this post, because I figured you'd have something to add. Jan Ferrell, wildlife rehabilitator, says she thinks the owl must've been in very poor condition to be eating mantids, and concurs that the louseflies are a bad sign as well.

Awww poor little guy!

You have inspired me to shoot photos of dead animals I have been seeing. A dead mouse by the shallow end of our pool, a dead grosbeak that flew into our window on Saturday. This is quite exciting. Next I'll be blogging about them !

Usually I prefer lemons and insides inside.

No topic is off limits for you, you gutsy person.

Another fascinating posting, and no upset stomach here. Poor little guy,I'm sure the frog would have given him a great meal.

Waiting for the "other" post you hinted about.

Damn, Murr called dibs on it before I could. Oh, least the last line will be going to a good second home.

Unlike Liam, I think I'd find poking around good roadkill innards calls for a good celebratory breakfast. Must be an age thing.

Julie: Yep, when the insides of the bird are on the outside, no need to check on hanging on to it for the collection!

We do get a decent number of Barred Owls from Geauga and Summit counties. About ten of them were prepared since I came to CMNH, and tissue samples were sent off for a Barred Owl phylogeography paper that'll be coming out soon. It is very rewarding to go from have volunteers preparing a specimen to seeing that bird used in a published paper.

Posted by Andy Jones September 27, 2011 at 4:23 AM

Oh, the pictures of this beautiful guy hurts my heart. I don't mind the guts, I just can't stand his end this way.

Is ohio the only place you could find a barred owl?

Very much enjoyed your article!

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