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Still as a Pine Cone

January, 1976
I don’t know if it was just a particularly good year for them, or if I was just on a roll, but I was having tremendously good luck finding owls in the park across the street from our apartment. One of the really great old things (of which there were many) in Chicago’s Lincoln Park was the Viking Ship. I thought that the ship itself was cool, but even better was the fact that owls liked to roost inside the rafters of the roof over it. In one week I had found both a Barn Owl and two Saw-whet Owls here. I had been birding for about 3 years and that was the second Barn Owl I had found in Lincoln Park. Not bad work for a 13-year-old.

Viking ship in Lincoln Park.

Later, I found another—or perhaps one of the “Viking Ship” Saw-whets—about a half-mile away, roosting in a small oak tree that still had most of its brown leaves clinging to it. Perfect camouflage for a little brown owl, and because this was all in or around the grounds of Lincoln Park Zoo, there were lots of mice and rats for the owls to feed on. But the place that was a sure-fire for a Saw-whet was the Rock Garden.

This is outside the zoo proper and is planted with a variety of ornamental evergreens on a small slope decorated with large rocky outcrops—hence the name. The Rock Garden was not really taken care of, and was overgrown and gnarly. It was a great place to bird. It still is, but as seems to be the case all over the city parks, the bushes have all been removed or trimmed down to keep bad people from hiding behind or sleeping under them.

There was one Saw-whet that had roosted in the same yew for most of December, and a bunch of birders had been able to see it pretty easily. By January the interest in the bird had waned, but I had started to wonder about what it was eating. So I collected a bunch of pellets and took them home to dissect them. Dr. Beecher had an interest that winter in what a colony of Long-eared Owls in the suburb of Blue Island had been eating, and I had a lot of experience dissecting owl pellets. I could tell a deer mouse from a house mouse from a shrew by the parts I pulled out of owl pellets.

But the Saw-whet pellets didn’t have much in the way of mouse hair and bones. There was a bit, of course, but mostly it was stuff I couldn’t identify and bone fragments that were a mystery to me. So I decided there was only one way to figure out what it was eating: I would sit out there at night and try to see.

About half-an-hour before dark, I went out the owl tree and looked for it. It wasn’t there. It had always roosted on the same branch—every day—and on this day it wasn’t there. I moved in closer to look up into the branches of the 10-foot tall yew bush and the little owl materialized suddenly, not two feet from my nose! It had been sleeping in plain sight, still as a pine cone, right in front of me. I didn’t see it until it opened its eyes to glare at me. If you have never seen a Saw-whet, let me tell you that they are particularly good at that.

It didn’t flush, so I backed off and sat down to watch. Soon it became active, yawned and started preening. It was now dark, but there was enough light cast by the street lamps and reflected around by the snow that I could easily see what was going on. It became very still again, except for its head, which was now swiveling about like the bird was possessed. I looked down for a second to adjust my feet without making any noise, and when I looked up the owl had vanished. Crap!

Saw-whet Owl I photographed in 1993, in the same tree. See? They really are masters of “the glare”.

I was about to get up, when movement on a branch a foot above the ground caught my attention. It was the Saw-whet, and in that second it had caught a House Sparrow. The owl adjusted its prey in its talons and looked like it was going to start eating, but then started looking up. Without warning, it flew up right over my head, carrying the dead sparrow. I saw it land on the branch of a dead deciduous tree about 10 yards away, and slowly worked my way over to watch it eat.

I could see the sparrow dangling down at an odd angle. The owl had it by the head and was leaning over it. With an audible “snick” it severed the sparrow’s neck and let the body fall to the ground. It held the head in its talon, almost as a parrot would hold a peanut, and with a fairly loud “crunch” sliced off the top of the skull, and swallowed the “cap”. That explained the little bone fragments.

It sat there and with it’s eyes closed, as if enjoying an amazingly good meal, gently licked out the contents of the skull. When it finished, it let the head drop and flew off over a fence that I couldn’t climb (not legally, anyway). I retrieved the sparrow skull, and had it for some time in alcohol in my bedroom. I have no idea what happened to it, but I really wish I still had it. I’d keep it on the mantle.

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This essay was originally published at the North American Birding Blog in December of 2010.

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