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FEATHER TALK
BARN OWL

I was with a group of birders near the Fielding Garr ranch house on Antelope Island when a member of the group brought me a feather. I held up the feather and studied it. Its soft texture, warm brown color tones, size and other features quickly led me to say, "It's an owl feather."

Was it just an owl feather or is there more to the story? The size eliminated the possibility of it being from any of Utah’s small owls -- the Western Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, or Burrowing Owl. Of the large owls, I’ve seen Great Horned Owl, Short-eared Owl, and Barn Owl near the ranch and I suspect Long-eared Owls occasionally visit. We will never know for sure what species of owl lost this feather but my vote goes to the Barn Owl. The owls I most often observe at this site are the Great Horned and the Barn. I would expect the Short-eared Owl to remain in the marsh vegetation instead of around trees and buildings. The buffy, almost orange color of the feather says that it's probably from a Barn Owl. The Great Horned Owl has much darker brown and gray feathers.

My co-birders started teasing me about my “probability” birding technique. At first glance, what follows has nothing to do with an owl feather, but stories evolve and change direction quickly. I’ve birded northern Utah a lot. Through this experience, I know what birds to expect in nearly every local habitat type. With just a quick glance to determine size, behavior, and maybe a color perception, I call off the species name that has the highest probability of fitting. Then I try to get a better look to talk myself into a rarer observation. Occasionally I change my first call to a different species. Sometimes I carry this technique to the extreme. I was winter birding with a group when a fellow birder said, “What are those gulls flying over?” Without even looking up from my scope, where I was trying to pick out a Bohemian Waxwing among many Cedar Waxwings, I replied, “Ring-billed Gulls.” It’s true that our most common winter gull is the Ring-bill and our most common summer gull is the California Gull, but we do have many more gull species in the area. My probability technique works most of the time.

Let’s look closely at that owl feather once more. See the fine, soft fringe on the leading edge of the feather? This design makes the flight of an owl almost silent. Even a bird as small as a hummingbird will make more wing noise than an owl. Large eyes, very sensitive ears, and a silent flight helps an owl capture an elusive mouse before it has a chance to quickly disappear into heavy cover. A less effective predator would quickly starve or be forced to change its diet to human scraps at the local dump.


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