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Who Killed That Owl??

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Chet Baker and I have been making up for lost autumnal walks lately. On October 12, we ran Pontius Road, then nipped over by car to see what was doin' down on Dean's Fork.

Found an awesome pile of coy-wolf scat, fresh and hairy with raccoon:

That's a big animal. And a whole lotta poo. I forget myself and call them coyotes, but they're closer to wolves out East.  I try to imagine eating raw raccoon with the fur pelt on, and fail. Ugh! But the hair they ingest serves to clean out the digestive tract, much as grass does. They need it.

If you're intrigued by coy-wolves and their prodigious droppings: A little more info, and some of my photos, of who laid that great turd here

We were about to the car when I noticed a stray feather in the grass, one that had belonged to a raptor. I climbed a little rise under a power pole and found a kill scene!

Feathers were strewn everywhere. I could see by their softly fringed edges they were from an owl, and from their color and pattern that they had belonged to a barred owl. Whoa. What would kill a barred owl? I had my immediate suspicions. Let me walk you through my thought process in deducing the killer.

Initially, I was thrown off by the large splash pattern of the feathers, which suggested a mammalian predator such as a bobcat. They were scattered for about 12' around in a big circle.
The feathers were also quite bedraggled and wet, and had been torn out in great clumps. All suggestive of a mammalian predator. But it has been very dewy, so maybe it wasn't saliva that made them so disheveled.

The Bacon didn't think so.

What a mess! A bit of wing. I'm still thinking mammal at this point.

I pick up some wing feathers and examine the quill ends.

The ends are shorn off more or less cleanly, almost as if they'd been cut with a scissors. Or the sharp edge of a hooked bill. 

Had they been chewed off by a mammalian predator, they'd be compressed, flattened, and there would be tooth marks in them. I've swung back to thinking about an avian predator now. But the big splash pattern confuses me. Raptors tend to be neater in plucking than that. I look up and study the power pole above.

Aha! Stuck to a little relay box on the pole are two vital clues: the barred owl's stomach contents (a partially digested katydid), and a clump of plucked barred owl feathers.

I can see that these have fallen from high above and stuck on the plastic box.  Which explains the large splash pattern of feathers--they've drifted down from high above, and spread out. At this point I know that whatever killed that owl bore it up to the top of the power pole to pluck and eat it. So it has to be a bird. There's only one bird that can do that to a barred owl.

With my binoculars, I scan the top of the pole high above. My iPhone can't zoom very well, but that pale thing making an interruption in the shadow near the top is a gauzy buff body feather from a great horned owl, caught on the rough wood. I've got my perp. Great horned owls are hell on all other owls. They're the apex predator wherever they occur, and the first thing they do when they move into an area is clean out the barred owls. Tough but true. It happened on our land.

Lest you feel too sorry for barred owls, out in the Pacific Northwest, they clean out endangered spotted owls. Here they do in screech owls and saw-whets. They'd probably kill a long-ear too. It's a hard world out there, especially at night.

 Dean's Fork is down one barred owl, and up one great horned.

Case solved and closed, and a few more things learned, Chet and I trot for home.
These blazing blue and orange days are few and numbered, and we know it all too well.


Alimentary, my dear Watson!

Forensic coolness at its finest!

A thrilling telling.

Smart! I would like to hear more about the coy-wolf...

Some tidbits about coy-wolves here, Michelle:

I loved your story and detailed description of the crime scene investigation, Julie! It was so exciting and instructive - I now know how to assess the scene when I find something similar, as well as remember to "look up"! I continue to take proactive measures to protect my purple martins from my resident Great Horned owl, but there's only so much I can do, if they won't stay put, behind their protective caging. I love them, but I love my GHO too - I just wish she would focus more on the moles and feral cats that roam around!
We had several attacks like this during this year's season.

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